Saturday, November 08, 2008

Recounts Unlikely To Change Much

Recounts Rarely Change Much

With a handful of Iowa legislative races within double digits or even single digits, and three U.S. Senate races yet to be decided, the word "recount" is buzzing in the air.

While a recount may give a losing candidate emotional satisfaction and a sense of closure, the vote shifts tend to be very, very small.

I don't mention my day job here much, but I've worked in the Johnson County Auditor's Office for the past 11 years (which explains why you didn't see as many of my stories the last couple weeks before the election). In that time, I've had hands-on experience with three recounts.

In 1999, we re-fed all the ballots from an Iowa City council race, nearly 8,000, and only one vote shifted, narrowing a three vote lead down to two. In a three-county recount in a 2002 state senate race, about three votes moved. In 2005 a recount in the North Liberty mayor's race changed no votes at all out of over 1,000 ballots fed into the machine. The write-in winner lost a couple votes because the recount board interpreted the spelling of his name just a little more strictly than the Election Day poll workers, and tossed a couple votes where they though the name was too vague. That wasn't enough to change the outcome.

Multiply those one or two vote county shifts by a whole state with a 200 or so vote margin, which is where the Al Franken-Norm Coleman U.S. Senate race sits in Minnesota, and you might have something. But a state legislative district that's, say, 100 votes? Highly unlikely.

In fact, the big shifts have already happened with the decisions on the provisional ballots as boards met Thursday and Friday. Those boards also counted absentee ballots that arrived on Wednesday and Thursday, but were postmarked by the day before the election.

Sure, more absentees might show up before canvasses make the results final next week, but there's a law of diminishing returns. Auditors don't all of a sudden get a bigger pile of absentees in the mail six days after the election than they do one day after the election. And the later it gets, the more likely it is that those ballots have an Election Day postmark and are thus worthless.

Given the heavily Democratic nature of Iowa's absentee voting this year, any Republican who's trailing is harder pressed catch up, which means state Sen. Jeff Danielson in Waterloo, who trailed Election Night, is likely to hold his single digit lead. But that doesn't necessarily mean a Democrat who's trailing, like state Rep. Art Staed, who's down by a couple dozen votes, will either.

In what appears to be the state's closest race, the Sioux City Journal reported Thursday that Republican challenger Jeremy Taylor had a one vote lead in House District 1 over incumbent Democrat Wes Whitead, with 234 ballots left to count. Whitead had a six vote lead at the end of Election Night.

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