PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania’s recount is over, and the results are clear: The vote count was accurate the first time.
Mehmet Oz beat David McCormick by fewer than 1,000 votes in the Republican Senate primary — roughly the same margin as after the votes were first counted.
The numbers budged ever so slightly in some counties. But they didn’t change in any significant way. The recount didn’t magically find new votes, or expose major errors or any fraud.
Elections officials and experts said the fact that the numbers barely shifted — in counties big and small, Democratic and Republican — should build public trust.
“The recount tells us that we should absolutely have faith and confidence in our elections,” said Lisa Deeley, the Democratic chief of elections for Philadelphia, the state’s largest and bluest county.
“Every election, I make sure that those numbers are right. So the recount’s really not going to change anything,” said Florence Kellett, the Republican elections director for Wyoming County, a red county that’s one of Pennsylvania’s smallest.
“People can be really confident that the results are the results, and they’re not going to change very much,” said Thad Hall, a registered independent who runs elections in Mercer County, a midsize Republican county.
Oz gained one vote in Philly, none in Wyoming County, and two in Mercer. McCormick lost two votes in Philly and saw his numbers stay exactly the same in Wyoming and Mercer.
This was Pennsylvania’s second statewide recount in a row, but the two took place under very different circumstances. This one was a GOP primary, the other was a general election between Democrats and Republicans. This one was a high-profile U.S. Senate race, the other was a low-key judicial contest. Both recounts affirmed the initial results and underscored the accuracy of the system.
There’s a very, very small amount of error in election results
Elections are too complex to ever be run perfectly — there are too many humans, ballots, polling places, counties and procedures to follow. Some error is inevitable.
Maybe, for example, a voter filled in the bubble to vote for one candidate, but after folding their mail ballot, the ink bled into another bubble. That happened in Centre County in this election.
That margin of error is usually so small that it’s accepted — but when a race is so close, recounts help catch any such instances. Pennsylvania law automatically triggers a recount when the margin of victory is within 0.5%.
The Centre County ballot that was originally read as an overvote was instead reviewed in the recount, and elections officials recognized it was a clear vote for Carla Sands.
A recount is simply about counting every single vote a second time
While the vast majority of votes come in perfectly clean and ready to be counted, there are always some that elections workers have to figure out what to do with. That’s part of why it takes time to count the votes — officials have to decide whether ballots with flaws are so defective they have to be thrown out. There are also ballots they have to recreate so they can be counted, such as if a ballot is stained or crinkled.
But by the time the votes have been counted, all those decisions have already been made. Every vote that can be counted has; the rest have been rejected.
That means the recount is simply about counting each vote a second time — not adding new votes.
Even without a recount, there are redundancies and audits already built in.
Elections officials are repeatedly making sure all the numbers line up throughout the process.
“If I’m sending 500 ballots out to one precinct, and they have 450 people vote, I better receive 50 unvoted ballots back from them. So we check that,” said Kellett, of Wyoming County. “Then there better be 450 people voting in the poll book. There better be 450 people on the numbered list of voters. And there better be 450 ballots cast. Every election director does this.”
Similarly, counties make sure the number of mail ballots matches the number of envelopes, which should align with the number of voters marked as returning their ballots.
After votes are counted, state law requires counties to audit 2% of votes to ensure they were accurately counted, and the state has in recent years been testing “risk-limiting audits,” a gold-standard method.
There just isn’t that much opportunity for voters at polling places to make mistakes that would change in a recount
While voters make all sorts of mistakes, the kind that can be changed in a recount are few and far between. In many counties, votes are cast by hand, with voters filling out a ballot and then scanning it. If the scanner identifies an issue — such as reading an “overvote” of having too many candidates selected — it will flag the ballot.
Only if a voter ignores that warning and decides to cast the overvote anyway will it go through and, if the overvote turns out to be a mistake, will it be corrected in a recount. That’s a very small number of votes, because voters generally don’t decide to proceed with casting a ballot that they’re being told has an error.
Other counties, including Philly, use machines that directly mark the ballot after voters make their selections. Those machines won’t even allow a voter to select too many candidates.
Mail ballots have a bit more chance of error, but it’s still low
Because mail ballots get sent in without the in-person scanning and warning, there’s a slightly higher chance something can go wrong with them.
Even then, the numbers are low, county elections officials said, perhaps because voters are taking more time with those votes. Instead, the kinds of errors made on mail ballots are the type that get a ballot rejected in the first place — things such as missing a signature.
Machines are very accurate at counting votes
The equipment used to count all ballots — including scanners at polling places or high-speed ones used at county offices — is designed to very precisely and accurately count votes.
“Logic and accuracy” testing before each election includes running ballots through the machines to check whether they’re correctly tallying the votes. Counties did that testing again for the recount.
The machines have improved a lot over the years, experts said — and all of Pennsylvania’s machines are new. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered voting systems be replaced before the 2020 election.
“The machines have to be certified, so it’s not that some random county can buy something out of the trunk of somebody’s car and start counting ballots with it,” said Michael Morley, an election law professor at Florida State University.
Even when votes do change, they don’t usually change in one direction
For a recount to change an election result, it’s not just about the number of votes that get added or removed from the total — what matters is how those changes affect individual candidates.
Allegheny County, for example, was one of only a handful of counties that saw double-digit changes to individual candidates’ vote counts. But by adding 19 votes for Oz and 26 for McCormick, the change was only a net of seven in McCormick’s favor.
There’s generally no reason to expect a recount to favor one particular candidate — there’s no reason one candidate’s voters would be particularly likely to cast ballots with possible errors.
The strong partisan divide in voting methods since 2020, however, does increase the small likelihood that in general elections, a recount could benefit Democrats in particular. Because Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to vote by mail, and mail ballots are more likely than in-person votes to have errors, it’s Democrats who may benefit a bit more in a general election recount.