May 27, 2018
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Rethinking Recounts

As lawmakers look for ways to cut state spending, they can start by considering changes to the state’s standards for taxpayer-funded recounts. While the savings won’t be huge, changing the standards for when “free” recounts will be done can avoid wastes of time and money.

Last week, two groups that oppose a casino in Oxford County announced they were seeking a recount of the votes cast on Question 1. The question, which allows a casino in the western Maine county, was approved by a margin of about 5,600 votes out of more than 559,000 cast, according to results compiled by the Bangor Daily News.

The recount will take weeks and cost tens of thousands of dollars, much of it borne by the state police, which must collect ballots from more than 500 towns across the state.

Current law allows for a recount, at taxpayer expense, if the vote difference is less than 2 percent of the total votes cast. A better system may be to have a smaller margin for statewide recounts.

In a legislative race, 2 percent of votes could be only a dozen or so votes. In a statewide race, however, 2 percent can be more than 10,000 votes — a margin highly unlikely to be changed if ballots are counted again. In fact, the governor’s race was decided by less than 2 percent of the vote this year.

An alternative for statewide races could be to drop the margin to 1 percent or less. Or, for any statewide election, those asking for a recount could be asked to pay half the bill, with the money to be refunded if the vote is overturned.

In the past three decades, the Secretary of State’s Office has conducted 131 recounts in legislative and county elections. Only 10 results were reversed after a recount. The largest margin in a successful recount was 169 votes, which was attributed to an unusual problem with pens that were incompatible with ballots, according to Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who says voting problems are localized, not symptomatic of statewide errors.The last recount on a statewide ballot measure was in 1995, when voters approved a mandatory seat belt law by less than 1 percentage point. The recount was halted after less than 12 percent of the ballots had been tallied again when the group opposing the ballot measure said it was satisfied with the results.

In 2002, a recount was started in the Republican primary for the 2nd Congressional District, which was decided by 319 votes out of nearly 40,000 cast. Tim Woodcock stopped the process after 4,000 votes had been recounted but only a handful changed.

Recounts are a necessary part of our voting system, but they should be done at taxpayer expense only when there is a realistic chance that the outcome will change.

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