This Is How You Recount 3 Million Votes

Tabulators separate ballots into piles for each presidential candidate during a recount in Dane County (Wis.) on December 1, 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin. Green Party candidate Jill Stein has requested Wisconsin and other states to recount the U.S. presi... Andy Manis/Getty Images

Across the great state of Wisconsin, in each of its 72 counties from Milwaukee to Ashland, roomfuls of proud cheeseheads are sitting at folding tables staring down piles of paper ballots. They have less than two weeks to complete the daunting task of recounting the nearly 3 million votes cast in November's presidential election (the deadline is Dec. 13).

Wisconsin's recount is the first candidate-initiated presidential recount effort since the infamous Florida recount of 2000, when Americans became painfully familiar with the terms "dimpled chad" and "hanging chad." Unlike Bush v. Gore, the Wisconsin recount will almost certainly have no effect on the outcome of the election. Trump took the state by more than 20,000 votes, an impossible number to overcome without evidence of widespread fraud or tampering.

But the recount must go on! According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission's Recount Manual, any candidate who received votes in an election may request a recount for any reason. In 17 other states, any voter can request a recount, if he or she is willing to pay for it. Several states also trigger automatic recounts if the election results were particularly tight. Wisconsin's not one of them.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein filed her petition on time and raised enough cash to cover the estimated $3.5 million cost of the recount. The money will pay for attorney fees, state filing fees and the cost of hiring all those temporary workers to do the counting.

According to Wisconsin law, the petitioner must pay for the recount if the margin of victory was greater than 0.25 percent. In this case, it was nearly 1 percent. The good news is that Stein will be fully reimbursed if the election results are reversed. (Again, not likely to happen. Stein says she is not doing this to change the outcome, but because of "compelling evidence of voter anomalies.")

Recount Logistics

The recount process seems straightforward enough. Collect all the paper ballots, absentee ballots and electronic voting records from each county and, well, count them again. But nothing is straightforward when humans are involved.

Tammy Patrick oversaw hand count audits in Maricopa County, Arizona, for every federal election for about 10 years. Election audits, like recounts, require a roomful of average citizens to painstakingly count ballots and record votes.

"The process sounds extremely simple," says Patrick, who now works for the Bipartisan Policy Center on election reform issues. "I would oversee a room of 20 tables with three people at a table. Every single table over the course or two to three days would get their count wrong, because people have a difficult time counting to 10 repeatedly."

The Green Party went to court to force every county in Wisconsin to hand count the ballots, but the judge refused. Still, most counties in Wisconsin say they will manually count the votes. This is despite the fact that 85 percent of votes in Wisconsin are cast on those "fill-in-the-bubble" sheets that are fed into optical scanning machines, according to Kevin Kennedy, who oversaw two previous Wisconsin recounts in 2011 and 1989 as the state's chief election official.

"I personally never want my ballot to be hand counted. I always want a machine to do it," adds Patrick. "You're taking out the technology that's agnostic and you're introducing the potential for human error."

But human error is precisely the reason why most candidates request election recounts. American voters have proven again and again that they can't follow simple directions. A candidate's best hope for reversing an election is to disqualify ballots for the opponent that were filled in incorrectly.

"It's amazing how creative people can be," says Kennedy. "When Minnesota had its 2008 statewide recount, there were voters writing 'Lizard People' on their ballots."

Besides the certified weirdos, regular voters will mistakenly circle a candidate's name or put a check by it instead of filling in the bubble. Or they'll fill in more than one bubble for the same office.

This is why every single paper ballot in Wisconsin, even if it's not going to be hand counted, will be individually reviewed by an elections inspector before it's fed into the optical scan machine.

Those tables of ballot inspectors will be monitored by representatives from the Stein, Trump and Clinton campaigns. If a candidate's team disagrees with the opinion of an inspector, they can ask for the ballot to be reviewed by the county's Board of Canvassers, a bipartisan commission charged with certifying election results.

Watching Paint Dry

Kennedy says that contested ballots are "very uncommon," but that every state has detailed guidelines for interpreting so-called "voter intent," or what the voter really meant when he circled a candidate's name and put an X next to another one. Check out the Washington state Voter Intent manual complete with handy examples of botched ballots.

A page from Washington state's voter intent manual instructing how to count one out-of-the-ordinary ballot.
Office of the Secretary of State, Washington

Not only are the candidates' official representatives present during a recount, but the public is invited, too! Curious citizens can watch the whole tedious process up close and personal, but they can't examine individual ballots or talk to the inspectors. Kennedy likens it to "watching paint dry."

And having the public involved puts some extra burdens on the elections staff. "We had to put in additional gun lockers, because we had some observers who refused to leave their guns in their cars," says Patrick, the former Arizona elections official.

In Maricopa County, they started live-streaming their election counts and audits online back in 2007 to satisfy the public's interest. King County, Washington, has similar webcams set up in all of its ballot-counting facilities.

In addition to the scanned paper ballots, around 10 percent of the votes cast in Wisconsin were made on touch-screen voting machines called DREs (direct recording electronic). Wisconsin DREs are unique in that they produce a paper record of the votes cast on the machine, while touch screens in states like Pennsylvania only store an electronic record.

As part of the Wisconsin recount, workers will have to verify that the paper receipts from each DRE match the vote totals stored in the machines. If a recount is ordered in Pennsylvania, elections officials will simply upload the machines' data to new flash drives and retabulate the totals. Without paper receipts or optical scan bubble sheets, there's nothing to sit around and hand count.

Good thinking, PA!

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