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How Likely Is Another Franken-Coleman-Style Recount?

With allegations of voter fraud swirling in several swing states and both parties dispatching lawyers into the field at record rates, there’s been a lot of buzz about the chances of a repeat of the kind of contested election the country witnessed with Sen. Al Franken (D) and former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) in Minnesota in 2008. Adding to that distinct likelihood is the Republican National Lawyers Association, a group I profile in my story today that has been hosting training sessions for Republican lawyers and stoking fears about the likelihood of widespread voter fraud in a number of contested states and districts.

But how likely is the kind of drawn-out recount and court case that we saw in Minnesota last election cycle? Rob Richie, the Executive Director of a FairVote, which advocates for electoral reform that increases turnout and fair representation, shares the numbers from a forthcoming report conducted by the group that studied every recount between 2000 and 2009. He concludes that the chances are pretty slim:

  • A meaningful statewide recount took place once out of every 262 statewide elections in the 10 years of elections from 2000 to 2009: 11 out of 2,884 races. (That would be consistent with just one meaningful recount in U.S. Senate races taking place in this period.)
  • Seven additional recounts occurred because of automatic recount laws or requested recounts. Of the 18 total statewide recounts in 2000-2009, the average change in victory margin was 0.027%, or 296 votes.
  • Three of these 18 recounts (and three out of the 11 meaningful recounts) resulted in a change in outcome –that’s one out 961 statewide races in this period.

In other words, FairVote calculates that a meaningful statewide Senate recount like Franken-Coleman occurs only about once a decade, while a Senate recount that results in a change in outcome should occur far less frequently than that. With all the allegations of votes being mishandled, miscounted, forgotten or fraudulent, the average change in victory margin during a recount (.027%) seems like a stunningly small figure — and a rebuke to those who allege the current system is rife with either fraud or error.

On the other hand, the study probably didn’t account for the once-in-a-blue-moon credible write-in challenge being posed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska’s three-way Senate race. If the results remain close up there, the ballot counting will likely drag on for weeks or months and legal action could easily be right around the corner.

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