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How a Wisconsin recount would work

Poll workers sort early and absentee ballots in Kenosha, Wis., on Election Day. (Wong Maye-E/AP)

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden late Wednesday was declared the winner in Wisconsin, but President Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, said Trump would request a recount of the state’s ballots. Here’s what we know about that process.

Do Wisconsin rules allow Trump to request a recount?

Yes. Under state law, a recount is conducted at state expense when the margin separating two candidates is less than 0.25 percent. However, a candidate is allowed to request a recount any time the margin is less than 1 percent, provided the campaign agrees to pay. Unofficial tallies on Wednesday showed that Biden was leading Trump by about 0.6 percent in the state, or about 20,500 votes — close enough to allow Trump to request a recount but not for it to occur at state expense. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin by 22,748 votes in 2016.

How long does the Trump campaign have to request the recount?

Under state rules, counties must complete a canvass of local results and turn those results over to the state between now and Nov. 17.

A presidential candidate requesting a recount must do so no later than 5 p.m. on the first business day after the state has received its final results from the state’s 72 counties. The deadline for counties to turn over those results for this election under state rules is Nov. 17.

Why would a recount be necessary?

Stepien said in a statement that the Trump campaign wanted the second look because of “reports of irregularities in several Wisconsin counties which raise serious doubts about the validity of the results,” but he provided no evidence of that claim. Wisconsin Elections Commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe rejected Stepien’s assertion, telling reporters on Wednesday that the count had gone smoothly. Still, she said, the state’s clerks were prepared to conduct a recount if a petition was received to do so.

How quickly could the recount be completed?

The recount must begin no later than 9 a.m. on the third day after the Wisconsin Elections Commission orders it to take place. County canvassing boards must complete the recount and forward the results to the state no later than 13 days after it was ordered, according to guidance provided to counties.

How much would it cost the Trump campaign?

Given the current margin, state officials are allowed to require the Trump campaign to pay the estimated costs of a recount before it begins. Green Party candidate Jill Stein paid nearly $3.5 million to initiate a full state recount of the presidential vote four years ago.

What is involved in the process?

The state distributes to local counties a detailed checklist to follow during a recount, including retabulating ballots, sometimes by hand and sometimes by refeeding ballots through machine tabulators. Winnebago Deputy Clerk Julie Barthels recalled that the county marshaled 40 people a day to recount all of the county’s more than 84,000 individual ballots by hand in 2016. “It went very smoothly, and we are hoping this one will be the same,” she said.

Is the process likely to go okay?

State and local officials in Wisconsin expressed confidence that they are prepared to conduct prompt and secure recounts. They noted the state has traditionally had close elections and has conducted numerous recounts in the past. Still, clerks said the process can be stressful, given the intense scrutiny and the resources needed to finish. Brown County clerk Sandy Juno is a veteran of many recounts but said none matched 2016, the first full-scale presidential recount in Wisconsin.

“What we went through in 2016 was a totally different experience, and the pressure was horrible,” she said.

After the sprint of a November election, she had to quickly assemble a staff, judges from the political parties, and even rent a large facility in Green Bay and then furnish it, costs ultimately borne by the candidate requesting the recount. In the end, about 30 people spent seven long days together, each poring over more than 125,000 ballots.

Unlike 2016, clerks this time will have to account for the coronavirus.

In Ashland County, on the shores of Lake Superior, the last recount was conducted in the county board chambers. In 2016, four teams of workers counted every ballot by hand under the close watch of observers.

“We had observers, and inspectors and clerks helping us collect these ballots, so it was a wide variety of people,” said county clerk Heather Schutte. “This year, it is going to be challenging, because I am not sure how we are going to do this and keep the six-foot distance and remain sanitary.” She anticipates renting a larger space and moving the operation there.

Is a recount in Wisconsin likely to change the outcome of the race?

Officials in Wisconsin said recounts there rarely change the tally significantly. “I expect that if there is a recount, the numbers would not change much,” Scott McDonell, the clerk of heavily Democratic Dane County, told reporters on Wednesday. Likewise, Juno said in Brown County, few votes were changed in 2016. “One [candidate] would lose one, one would pick one up — they kind of wash each other out, for the most part,” she said. Statewide, in 2016, Clinton increased her vote tally by 713 votes, while Trump increased his by 844, meaning Trump’s overall margin of victory was expanded by 131 votes as a result of the recount.

On Twitter, former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (R) called the 20,000-vote margin a “high hurdle” for Trump. In an email, however, he added that a local canvassing process now underway could reveal problems in the current count. “That would make the prospect of the outcome changing much more likely,” he said. “The bottom line is that no one should declare victory in Wisconsin until the canvas is certified by the state.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a recount is triggered automatically under state law when the margin separating two candidates is less than 0.25 percent. A candidate can request a recount at state expense in that case; if the margin is wider, the candidate requesting the recount must pay for it himself or herself. The story has been updated.