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Here's how a hand recount of 4.8 million ballots would actually work

The Uptake/Flickr
These folks in Mower County, Minnesota had to go through a hand recount in 2008. This could be us! Soon!

Hoo boy. Here we go, folks.

A hand recount of 4.8 million ballots, all done before December 13 to meet federal deadlines. 

Oakland County and Ingham County are scheduled to begin their recounts at noon Monday, in order to comply with a judge's early morning order that the state begin its recount right away. That way, state elections workers will be able to focus on these two counties first, iron out the process a bit, and then help the other counties begin tomorrow morning. 

(To see the recount schedule for Michigan, click here.)

Oakland County put out this training video for its recount staff (keep your non-recount talk to a minimum, challengers can only speak when challenging; soothing flute music is included.)


That's assuming, of course, that Republicans and other recount opponents don't put a kibosh on the whole thing before noon by filing another objection to stop it. 

So on top of all the logistical madness, county clerks, elections workers, and their scrabbled-together recount staff could be in for a day of stopping, starting, and then stopping again. 

Washtenaw County, meanwhile, will be training its 55 recount workers this afternoon, prepping them for 10-hour days. They'll get a daily stipend and lunch will be provided, according to the county.  

Elections officials have less than 10 days to get every single ballot recounted. 

"The thing that keeps me up at night is just being able to finish on time," state elections director Chris Thomas said. "That's going to be tough. And it's going to really challenge the elections officials across this state."

If there is one silver lining for Thomas, it's the chance to put all the election fraud rumors to rest. 

“We have been hearing all this happy fraud talk for the last couple of months,” he says. “And we’re always challenged to prove there’s no fraud. Which is often an attempt to prove a negative. And this is an opportunity to prove there’s no fraud. So I look forward to that.”  

Meanwhile, here are 7 things to know about how this whole process will actually work:

1) So when we say this is a hand recount of ballots, what are we physically counting here? Computer scans of the ballot? Or the actual paper ballot you put in that gray box on Election Day?

It’s the real ballot. Turns out, cities have been holding onto those paper ballots in sealed cans. “If they’re broken, you know that somebody may have entered them, or it could have been knocked [over]” Thomas says. 

2) Can anybody work on this actual recounting? Do you have to already be trained as a poll worker?

“No, the county clerks will hire people,” he says. “They may get some poll workers. They may hire local election officials, city and townships clerks and their staff. So any number of people are eligible to work for the county in that regard.”

They do have to go through some training before they get started, Thomas says.  

3) How much would this kind of recount actually cost? And do the counties get reimbursed for how much money they spend on paying workers, etc.? Does the Stein campaign just pay for all this with all that money they raised?

“The money that they submit, we think it’ll be around $800,000. That money will be reimbursed to the counties, based on the number of precincts that they recount.”

So it may not actually cover all the costs a county racks up. But Thomas says it’s more than they would have gotten in previous years, when the cost to petition for a recount was just $10 per precinct.

“So I think the counties, for the first time, are going to see a sizeable chunk of money coming back,” he says.

Still, critics - and several county clerks - say the cost of this recount could be steep. A new bill in Lansing would, if passed, make Jill Stein foot the bill for the whole thing. 

4) Let’s say, for the sake of argument, this recount shows that Hillary Clinton won Michigan. What happens then?

“The Board of Canvassers would come in, they would re-certify the results of the recount. And they would certify the electors for the Democratic Party. And they would be the ones receiving new certificates, and the ones who would show up on December 19 to convene the Electoral College,” Thomas says.

5) One clerk we spoke with says she wants a Republican and a Democrat on each team of people sorting and tallying. Is that a requirement?

“No, but if they want to do that, I think that’s a good idea,” he says. “In some areas of the state, that’s just very hard to do.”

6) So let’s say I have an agenda, and I go to my county recount and I want to try to throw it one way for my candidate. Who’s watching this tallying and sorting to try and make sure things aren’t happening that way?

“Well if you get that job, you’ll feel like you’re performing,” he says. “Because you’ll be on a bit of a stage. Each candidate is entitled to have two watchers at each table. So you’re likely to have the Republicans representing Trump, Democrats representing Clinton, and I know Stein is out there recruiting as well. So there will be a lot of eyes on the work being done.”

Meanwhile, the whole process is open to the public to watch, but they can’t stand at the actual tables.

7) Whew. This just sounds like … a mess?

"No, it won’t be a mess. Recounts always start up a little rough, getting them up and off the ground. But they move very quickly," he says. 

*This post was originally published on November 28, it was last updated on December 5, 2016 after the recount ruling.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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