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Recount vs. audit: Which is more precise? And could either change election outcome?

Election expert: Audits are not more likely to change the election result than a recount, but they are more likely to identify systemic problems with an election, such as a type of machine that had problems.

Updated: November 16, 2020 - 7:55am

As states grapple with legal challenges from the Trump campaign, debates are arising about whether states should undergo a vote recount or vote audit. The process raises questions about which is more precise and whether either could change the outcome of the presidential race.

Procedures for audits and recounts, and whether they are required or even allowed, vary from state to state. A recount usually takes place in a close race. States have set margins where a recount automatically takes place or where a stakeholder in the process can request one.

Tom Spencer, vice president of the Lawyers Democracy Fund (LDF) and an attorney representing the George W. Bush 2000 campaign, told Just the News that the main purpose of a recount is to determine the outcome of the race. Usually, the ballots are literally recounted — fed back through the counting machine or sometimes recounted by hand. 

"Recounts usually do not result in changes of vote totals of more than a couple hundred votes, but recounts have overturned election results in close races," Spencer said. "One of the most famous examples was when the result of the Coleman-Franken 2008 Minnesota Senate race was changed after a recount," giving the seat to Democrat Al Franken.

In contrast, an audit may take place regardless of what the final vote count is. The purpose of an audit is to make sure that the election was administered properly, that is that the equipment functioned correctly and counting procedures were done properly. An audit can involve something similar to a recount without it being an official recount. Audits are not more likely to change the election result than a recount, Spencer said, but they are more likely to identify systemic problems with an election, such as a type of machine that had problems.

The Trump campaign has raised questions about systemic issues that would more likely be resolved by an audit than a recount. Among these are technical issues involving software, like that used by Dominion Voting Systems, which incorrectly gave Biden thousands of Michigan votes. Democratic leaders in Congress warned last year in a series of letters that election technology companies such as Dominion Voting Systems were "prone to security problems," a result of them having purportedly "long skimped on security in favor of convenience."

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Unofficial election results in Georgia show Democrat Joe Biden leading Trump by about 14,000 votes, and the state announced last week it would hand-count the nearly 5 million ballots cast.

"The procedure in Georgia is a post-election audit," Spencer said. "What the campaign has promised to request in Wisconsin is a recount. It cannot be requested until the state certifies its results, which will likely be early next week."

"Doing a great job in Georgia," Trump tweeted on Sunday. "Their recount is a scam, means nothing. Must see fraudulent signatures which is prohibited by stupidly signed & unconstitutional consent decree. @BrianKempGA

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However, Georgia's leadership has come under fire by some observers who say that in practice, Georgia has not been sufficiently rigorous in its audit process.

"Well the GOP in Georgia, it appears to be having a real meltdown ... We all thought Governor Kemp was quite solid, but Governor Kemp, and his lieutenant governor, Duncan, they are not stepping up in Georgia and leading as they should," Molly McCann, counsel to Sidney Powell, an attorney for Trump, told Real America's Voice. "Those two should be on the front line heading the charge to make sure we have a full audit, but the concern is that they might not want to uncover a massive, massive fraud or complete disaster in the tabulation because it will reflect very poorly upon them."