Reconsider Recounts

Posted Dec. 14, 2010, at 5:43 p.m.

The Secretary of State’s Office has completed six recounts of November election results. The final recount — involving the casino proposal for Oxford County — was called off Monday by opponents of the casino. No outcomes were changed.

Recounts are an important part of a democracy. But, especially in statewide races, that doesn’t mean they should be free and easy.

Current law allows a recount — at state expense — when the results of an election are within 2 percentage points. Recounts can be requested when there are larger margins, although a deposit of between $500 and $10,000 is required. The deposit is returned if the results are overturned.

For statewide races, legislators may want to consider adopting such a deposit system or reducing the margin for a taxpayer-funded recount.

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.

That was the case of the partial Oxford County casino recount. Shortly after the Nov. 2 election, two groups that oppose a casino in Oxford County announced they were seeking a recount of the votes cast on Question 1. According to unofficial results from the Secretary of State’s Office, the ques-tion, which allows a casino in the western Maine county, was approved by about 4,600 votes out of more than 564,000 cast.

On Monday, CasinosNo! and Oxford Hills No on 1 (OHNO1) stopped the recount, saying they were satisfied “there were no major discrepancies in the official results.”

According to the Secretary of State’s Office, 132,000 ballots — a quarter of the total — were recounted by hand over six days and the margin grew to 4,723 votes.

In the past three decades, the Secretary of State’s Office has conducted 137 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 incom-patible 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.

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.

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. Raising the standards for statewide recounts would be a move in this direction.

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