FACT CHECK: Is It Rare For A Recount To Overturn A Statewide Election?

Shane Devine | Fact Check Reporter

Politico reporter Marc Caputo claimed on MSNBC that recounts rarely reverse the outcome of an election.

“If you look at all of the other recounts that we’ve had, both in Florida – we haven’t had a statewide one in, well, in quite some time – or around the nation, it’s very rare that recounts overturn an election, and it’s even rarer that they overturn elections where the margins is in the thousands and thousands of votes,” he said Nov. 12.

Verdict: True

From 2000 to 2015, 27 statewide general elections were followed by recounts, and only three overturned the outcome. Those three elections had initial victory margins under 500 votes.

Fact Check:

Caputo made the claim in light of outgoing Gov. Rick Scott’s Senate race against Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, as well as the Florida gubernatorial election between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis.

Scott appeared to win on election night, but days later, his 56,000-vote lead narrowed to fewer than 13,000 votes. Gillum conceded to DeSantis, but later retracted his concession as DeSantis’ lead fell from 84,000 votes to roughly 33,000.

Machine recounts were ordered for both races with a deadline of Thursday. The recount only shifted the governor’s race by one vote, and Gillum conceded once again on Saturday. The Senate race is now undergoing a manual recount that must be completed by 12 p.m. Sunday.

No statewide election between 1980 and 2000 had its outcome reversed by a recount. Of the 4,687 statewide general elections from 2000 to 2015, just 27 were followed by recounts, and only three had their outcomes reversed, according to FairVote, a nonprofit organization which advocates for electoral reform. The Daily Caller confirmed with FairVote that no statewide election has had its outcome reversed since 2015.

None of the three election reversals concerned races where the initial margin of victory was larger than 500 votes, let alone the roughly 13,000-vote margin in the Senate race between Scott and Nelson. The recount for the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota led Democrat Al Franken, who initially lost by 215 votes, to win by 312 votes. The recount for the 2006 state auditor race in Vermont led Democrat Thomas Salmon to win by 102 votes despite initially losing by 137 votes. A recount during the 2004 gubernatorial election in Washington concluded with Democrat Christine Gregoire winning by 133 votes after initially losing by 261 votes.

Recounts from 2000 to 2015 shifted outcomes by a median of 219 votes, with 22 of the 27 recounts shifting the margin less than 500 votes each. The largest margin shift was 1,247 votes, according to FairVote. The Vermont state auditor race of 2006 saw a shift of 0.107 percent after the recount, the largest margin shift in proportional terms. The next largest percentage shift was 0.076 percent.

The largest recount from the 2000 to 2015 period, the 2000 presidential election in Florida between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, involved a vote total and an original victory margin that was smaller than the Senate race between Scott and Nelson. Out of nearly 6 million votes cast, the recount came down to 1,784 votes (0.031 percent) on election night and was finally decided by a 537-vote margin.

There have been some special cases in the past where elections had their outcomes reversed for reasons other than a recount.

The closest election in Senate history was a 1974 race between Democrat John Durkin and Republican Louis Wyman in New Hampshire. The election was held on Nov. 5, 1974, a few months after President Richard Nixon had resigned from the presidency following the Watergate Scandal.

Wyman initially won by a margin of 355 votes, but after Durkin demanded a recount, Wyman lost by a margin of 10 votes. Wyman demanded another recount, which resulted in him winning by a margin of two votes. Durkin petitioned the Senate to review the election, and after deliberating, the Senate failed to come to an agreement over 34 disputed points. It was only when Wyman suggested that they run again in a special election that Durkin won by a 27,000-vote margin.

Another example was the outcome of the 1876 presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, which was mired in accusations of voter fraud and conflicting vote counts by members of each party. Democrats ultimately conceded victory to Hayes, who in exchange agreed to remove federal troops from the South, thereby ending the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction.

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Shane Devine

Fact Check Reporter