Frequently Asked Questions - Why Numbers Change in a Recount
General Information Issued: November 24, 2004
Q: Why do vote counts change in a recount?
Votes change in recounts because original vote counts and recounts are conducted by human beings interacting with machines. We know from experience that human beings make mistakes. And, we know that most machine mistakes are caused by human error in operating or setting up the machine.
The purpose of a recount is to identify any human or machine errors that occurred in the original count and rectify these in the recount.
Q: What is the typical margin of error in a Washington State recount?
In recent history, election counts in Washington have been 99.99% accurate.
In this election, the election can be 99.99% accurate and 280 votes can change out of 2.8 million cast.
Q: What is the typical source of larger variations in ballots tabulated?
The most dramatic source of variation between the original count and the recount usually involves ballots that were not included in the original count due to human error, or which may have been inadvertently tabulated more than once.
In this recount, we have identified one county that has located a tray of 224 votes in a security room that were not counted in the original count, and another county where 34 votes processed through the canvassing board were not processed in the original count.
While this may result in more ballots being processed in the recount, the net gain or loss to a particular candidate is usually negligible since the votes will be tallied for both candidates.
The opposite result may occur if ballots are inadvertently tabulated more than once in the original count. That appears to have occurred in one county.
Q: When can discrepancies help or hurt one candidate?
In the typical situation, mistakes treat both candidates equally and do not significantly change the result.
For example, if 200 votes are found in a county where the candidates are running neck and neck, adding these votes to the count may add 100 votes to each candidate.
Discrepancies impact a particular candidate more dramatically in counties where one candidate is running significantly ahead of another, and a large number of ballots are involved.
The attention to the recount in King County for this election is an example of this dynamic.
In this election, for example, the Gregoire campaign would likely benefit from more ballots being tabulated in King County.
Conversely, the Gregoire campaign would likely lose ground if King County had tabulated a group of ballots twice in the original count.
Q: What causes minor variations in the recount?
Most of the counties that have posted recount results to date are posting variations in the 1 to 5 vote range.
These kinds of variations usually result from operator error in feeding ballots through a tabulator and where one or two ballots are processed more than once, or where a voter has marked a ballot too lightly and the tabulator is not able to read a vote.
Another example would be where the original ballot was processed without a hand inspection of the ballot and upon hand inspection in the recount process evidence of voter intent results in a different vote being recorded.
An example of this might be where the voter in an optical scan county did not fill in an oval for Governor on the ballot, but wrote Dino Rossi on the line for write-ins. Because the oval was not completed in the original count, the tabulator would not have recorded a vote for Dino Rossi. In the recount, the ballot would have been hand inspected and a ballot created to record a vote for Dino Rossi since the voter’s intent is clear.
These kinds of variations can result in slight variations in vote count.