For most politicians, Thanksgiving is a time for giving thanks that at least the stress of vote-counting, whether for results happy or sad, has long been over.
Each time around, though, a few can’t count themselves quite so fortunate. In a legislative district around Lewiston, in the closest Idaho legislative contest of the year, candidates Dan Rudolph (Democrat) and Thyra Stevenson (incumbent Republican) had to wait until this week to conclude their tight, tense contest.
The unofficial returns showed Rudolph ahead by 26 votes out of the 12,434 cast for the two candidates overall. Stevenson paid for recounting 33 precincts in Nez Perce County, which she lost; she did not seek a recount for smaller Lewis County, where she won. In the end she picked up one additional vote — not nearly enough.
In so close a result, a recount seems understandable; a few small counting errors could tip a result. Recounts rarely change the outcome for trailing candidates, though, and not everyone who might seek a recount does. In the other Lewiston-area House district, incumbent Democrat John Rusche led by just 48 votes, but his Republican challenger, Mike Kingsley, decided to accept that number.
Not many elections run so close as to draw the prospect of recounts. The biggest recount effort this year in the Northwest actually is a ballot issue, not a contest of candidates.
In Oregon, ballot measure 92 concerns whether certain genetically modified foods should be labeled. On election night, the vote was not especially close, with the “nos” leading by more than 10,000 votes. But in vote-by-mail Oregon, ballots have been coming in and have been rechecked for three weeks. Many of the late votes tend to come from liberal Multnomah County, so the “no” margin has dropped daily, and last week stood at just 809 votes out of about 1.5 million cast. The recount there will be automatic.
In spite of that remarkable gain of votes by the “yes” forces, the prevailing view is that “no” will still win. Simply, once all the votes are accounted for, very few changes ordinarily appear afterward.
Idaho has had a number of legislative race recounts over the years, but I can’t think of one (maybe you can — if so let me know) that changed the outcome. More often, they slightly increase the margin held by the unofficial leader.
Boise District 18 in 2010 saw Republican Julie Ellsworth defeating Democrat Janie Ward-Engelking by just nine votes, or less than one-tenth of a percent. Ward-Engelking (who now is a state senator and this year won election easily) asked for a recount, and she gained a single vote, so she still lost that race. Ellsworth remained the winner by eight votes.
In 2004, another Boise district (17) also saw a Republican win by nine votes; there, a recount slightly padded that lead.
Not all recounts are futile, however, as anyone who watched the 2004 Washington state governor’s race could tell you. That year, running for an open seat, Republican Dino Rossi won the initial state count (out of more than 2.7 million total) over Democrat Chris Gregoire by 261 votes — only a tiny sliver of a single percentage point. The margin was so small that an automatic recount was held, and Rossi won it, too — by just 42 votes.
Both of those counts were done by computer, and state law allowed — in extremely close cases — the loser to pay for a manual hand count. Gregoire did (the state Democratic Party paid), and the by-hand count eventually, after months of legal battles and discovery of a batch of additional ballots, resulted in a win for Gregoire by 129 votes. (At one point, she had led by 10.)
Don’t expect anything that exciting this year. But as the Gregoire-Rossi case shows, sometimes taking a second look can matter. As can a single vote.