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What Happens If There Is A Recount In Wisconsin?

With the critical state going down to the wire, here are the rules for how such a scenario could unfold.

Last updated on November 4, 2020, at 4:47 p.m. ET

Posted on November 4, 2020, at 10:40 a.m. ET

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Workers count absentee ballots on Nov. 4 in Milwaukee.

The presidential election has tightened down to a fraction of votes in a few states. Around a quarter of votes are yet to be counted in Pennsylvania. Georgia and North Carolina remain too close to call. Ongoing tallies in Nevada and Michigan have the candidates fewer than 10,000 votes apart with more than 10% of ballots left to count.

With virtually all votes counted in Wisconsin, according to state officials, former vice president Joe Biden leads President Donald Trump by around 20,000 votes.

But the race for the state's 10 critical electoral votes isn't quite over: On Wednesday afternoon, Trump's campaign manager said the campaign would request a recount "immediately."

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If the election margin is 1% or less, the defeated candidate has the option to request a recount. For presidential elections, this request has to be made by 5 p.m. on the first business day after the full results are announced, according to the state’s recount procedure.

Election officials have long warned that the surge in mail-in ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic would slow down the counting process. Mail-in ballots have appeared to lean Democratic, in part because of the party’s efforts to encourage early voting. In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Republican-controlled state legislatures prohibited election officials from counting mail-in ballots until Election Day, leading to the current delays.

"We are going to win Wisconsin, recount or no recount," Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said on a call with reporters on Wednesday morning.

The matter of who pays for the recount depends on how close the race is. If the margin is less than 0.25% of the total vote, the state handles the bill for the process. Anything more and it’s up to the requesting candidate to cover the costs, though money is refunded if the recount changes the result. Representatives of each candidate are allowed to observe the process and object to the counting of any particular vote but prohibited from touching the paper ballots or machines.

Local officials have 13 days to complete the recount. After that, if a candidate disputes the new or affirmed result, they have five business days to appeal the result to the state’s circuit court. Then, they will have to file a complaint “enumerating with specificity every alleged irregularity, defect, mistake or fraud committed during the recount,” according to Wisconsin's recount law.

A judge decides from there. If a candidate doesn’t like the ruling, they have 30 days to challenge it in the next higher court, the state’s court of appeals.

In a speech early Wednesday morning, Trump announced his intention to challenge the election in the Supreme Court if he loses, though for a recount case to reach that level it would first need to pass through the lower courts.

There have been two recounts in Wisconsin in recent years. In the 2011 race for a seat on the state Supreme Court, challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg initially defeated incumbent David Prosser by around 200 votes before a recount flipped the outcome, swinging the final tally by around 300 votes. In the 2016 presidential election, a recount called for by third-party candidate Jill Stein didn't alter the outcome for Hillary Clinton and shifted the margin by 131 votes in Trump's favor.

Scott Walker, a Republican and the state's governor until 2019, pointed out that those previous recounts involved races much closer than this one. Citing Biden's current lead, Walker said in a tweet, "If it holds, 20,000 is a high hurdle."

Typically, recounts shift about one vote per 10,0000 cast in presidential elections, said New York University's Charles Seife, author of Proofiness: How You're Being Fooled by the Numbers, which looked at earlier election recounts across the US. That means for Trump in Wisconsin, "a recount won't do much for him, unless he can disqualify large swaths of ballots," said Seife.

An expert on the 2016 recount in Wisconsin, the University of Michigan's Matthew Bernhard, said he agreed with former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker that the state's results are unlikely to change in a recount, maybe by only a few hundred votes.

"We don't have a ton of reason to be suspicious that something systemic has gone wrong," Berhhard told BuzzFeed News by email. "Wisconsin has done a lot to improve its vote counting procedures and technologies since 2016."

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UPDATE

This story has been updated with comments from two experts on recounts, Charles Seife and Matthew Bernhard.

Correction: Jill Stein called for a recount in Wisconsin in 2016. The person who requested a recount was misstated earlier version of this story.

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