How Do Election Recounts Work? Here's a Simple Explanation

Recount policies vary widely by state.
Recount policies vary widely by state. / Photo by Tiffany Tertipes on Unsplash

Unless there’s a tremendous margin of victory for a candidate, presidential election results in each state can be subject to scrutiny. A candidate trailing by only a small number of votes relative to the population will seek a recount if that state can make a difference in the overall electoral vote. But each state has specific guidelines for how—or if—that second tabulation occurs.

Donovan Slack at USA Today broke down the criteria in several key states currently being eyed closely in the 2020 election. Bear in mind that these are laws relating to recounts and that candidates can still initiate litigation over issues concerning the access available to poll watchers and the acceptance of mail-in ballots.


When all ballots have been counted, the state of Arizona will initiate an automatic recount if the difference in votes is equal to or less than 0.1 percent. No recounts can be requested by candidates or voters, though voters can challenge an election result if they suspect misconduct or error. In that instance, a recount would have to come through a court order. Arizona has no set deadline to complete a recount.


There is no automatic recount law in Georgia. If the margin is equal to or less than 0.5 percent between votes, a candidate can request a recount. But there’s a time limit: The request must be made in the two business days following official certification of the results. Georgia has until November 17 to make that declaration.


Unlike some states, Michigan doesn’t go by a percentage margin in votes. Instead, a recount is automatic if the difference between candidates is 2000 votes or less. A candidate can also request a recount if there’s a reasonable chance of winning or if they allege some wrongdoing or error. The request must be sent within two days following the tabulation of votes. The state would then have up to 30 days to complete the recount.


The state does not have an automatic recount. A losing candidate in the state of Nevada can request a recount regardless of the margin of victory. Voters can also submit a request. Like Georgia, there’s a time limit: The request must be submitted no later than three days following certification of results, which could happen as late as November 16. Nevada would then have up to 10 days to finish the recount.

North Carolina

The state will begin an automatic recount if the margin of victory is equal to or less than 1 percent. A request for a recount must be submitted by "12 p.m. on the second business day after the vote canvass," according to Reuters.


A recount is automatic if the margin is less than or equal to 0.5 percent. Voters in districts can also submit a petition for a recount owing to error within five days following the election if the petition has at least three signatures. Petitions can also be filed by candidates in state court. If a recount is undertaken in Pennsylvania, it has to utilize a different tabulator than the one used for the initial count. The ballots may also be counted by hand. The state's window for completing the recount is between November 18 and November 24.


There are no automatic recounts. A difference of 1 percent or less can allow a candidate to request a recount within one business day following certification of the results. Wisconsin would then have 13 days to finish the recount.

[h/t USA Today]