Elections 101: How counting works in Pennsylvania

This article was originally published By Votea nonprofit organization focused on local election administration and voting access.

by Carter Walker, Votebeat

In 2020, former president Donald Trump the campaign paid $3 million, so Wisconsin had to recount votes in two counties.

Result: Joe Biden the lead increased by 87 votes.

Such a recount would not be possible in Pennsylvania. In this case, a recount is ordered automatically if the statewide race is within a certain margin. Voters can also initiate a recount in their constituencies.

With another highly controversial rematch between the two teams scheduled for November, an automatic recount cannot be ruled out. In recent years, supporters of losing candidates have also initiated precinct-level recounts, which are unlikely to change the outcome of a race but could be used to disrupt the electoral process.

Here’s what you need to know about how counting works in Pennsylvania:

Why are recounts taking place in Pennsylvania?

There are at least two ways to start a recount in Pennsylvania.

Under Pennsylvania law, a recount in a statewide race is automatically triggered if the margin of victory is one-half of a percent, and the state and counties pay for the effort. The most recent situation occurred during the 2022 primary elections in the race for the Republican Party’s nomination for the US Senate.

Three voters in a precinct can also request a recount based on their belief that fraud or error occurred. Such a recount only applies to ballots cast in a precinct, which is the smallest constituency, usually with only a few hundred voters and sometimes no larger than a city block.

The filing fee for a recount is $50, a price established in 1927 that is equivalent to $900 today. Critics of Pennsylvania’s nearly 100-year-old voting law say the provision creates a state susceptible to recounts at the utility district level, which may delay certificationand argue that it should be updated to reflect inflation. Such petitions delayed the issuance of the certificate elections in 2022.

In 2016, supporters of the presidential candidate of the Green Party Jill Stein filed such requests. In court, Stein demanded a full recount, arguing that the contest was marred by voting machines vulnerable to hacking. She finally abandoned the recount attempt after a judge ordered her to post a $1 million bond to cover costs.

Adam Bonina Philadelphia lawyer who regularly works with Democratic candidates said he has previously used district-level recount requests in local races for county supervisor or school board.

In 2023, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania upheld the lower court’s ruling that for a recount to be granted, petitions must either be filed in all precincts where the race is held or provide evidence of fraud or error. This judgment became a precedent for the entire country.

This barrier is low for races like city supervisor, which may only have a few districts. But for statewide races, that would mean filing a petition in all of the state’s 9,000-plus precincts.

How does Pennsylvania count votes?

Counties must report their unofficial results to the Pennsylvania Department of State by the first Tuesday after the election, which is Nov. 12 of this year. If unofficial results show a statewide race like the presidential or U.S. Senate with a one-half percent margin, the secretary of state will order a recount by Nov. 14, the State Department says. directive. The losing candidate has until November 13 to submit a request to prevent a recount of votes.

Counties will then count all ballots by hand or using other counting machines that originally used the election.

The recount must begin the third Wednesday after this fall’s election, and the results must be reported to the clerk by the following Wednesday, November 27.

For precinct-level recount requests, applicants must file the request with their local court of common pleas. The judge will then determine whether it meets the legal requirements to proceed.

Could a recount change the election result?

According to. Relationships that change the outcome of a race are extremely uncommon Fair Vote’s survey of statewide coveragea nonprofit organization focused on ranked choice voting.

The group analyzed nearly 7,000 races across the state from 2000 to 2023 and found only 36 repeats in that time, and only three of those resulted in a change in outcome.

“All three changes occurred when the initial margin was less than 0.06% of the total votes cast for the top two candidates,” according to the report.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, there have been seven statewide recounts since the 0.5% rule went into effect in 2004, and none of them changed the outcome of the race.

The last one took place in the 2022 Republican primary for the US Senate.

In this race Mehmet Oz defeat Dave McCormick by a majority of 902 votes – margin 0.07% – recalculation triggered. McCormick confessed before the vote recount was completed, but the vote was eventually counted he only moved the lead by 49 votesin Oz’s favor.

A voter-initiated recount at the precinct level is likely to have even less impact on the outcome of the race than a recount ordered by the clerk.

When in 2022 supporters of Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano have asked for a statewide recountthey did not significantly change the margin in the areas where the requests were accepted.

This led to recounts in four Westmoreland County counties a difference of just three votes from the original list. Columbia County also provided information on votes in some precincts and their results changed by just one or two votes– officials said at the time.

Could there be a repeat this year?

Whether there will be an automatic recount in the statewide race this year depends on the margin of victory in November. Current polls indicates that the presidential race in Pennsylvania may be coming to an end.

If the margin is within half a percent, Commonwealth Secretary Al Schmidt will have to order a recount by November 14, according to calendar of this year’s elections. Districts will have to send the results of this recount to the secretary by November 27.

It is likely that at least some voters will request a recount at the precinct level, which could negatively impact the state’s certification process. This year it is a complex deadline for Pennsylvania to present its confirmed slate of presidential electors to Congress.

If precinct recount requests delay decisions, as they did in 2022, the state could miss that deadline and courts could be forced to intervene.

Carter Walker is a Votebeat reporter with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at cwalker@votebeat.org.

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