Final county primary election counts were certified Tuesday. That started the meter running on the three days Republican Sharron Angle has to ask for a recount in the race she lost in the northern U.S. House of Representatives district.
Few analysts give Angle good odds that she will overturn the result, and a look at the last major recount in Nevada demonstrates why. Angle lost by approximately the same numerical margin as John Ensign lost the 1998 U.S. Senate race, but the total number of votes is very different.
The initial count in that Senate race showed Democrat Harry Reid beating Republican Ensign by 401 votes. The recount increased Reid’s victory margin to 428.
Ensign’s recount was a statewide tally in a general election. Angle’s recount would take place in a district making up one-third of the state in a primary election. In other words, Ensign lost by 401 votes out of 435,790 cast, while Angle lost by 428 votes out of 70,524 cast. The margin Ensign had to reverse was only 0.09 percent. The margin Angle must reverse is 0.60 percent. A reversal of that magnitude would suggest something seriously wrong in the count, the voting system, or both. In recount terms, the race was not particularly close.
Modern recounts are often preceded by consultants who tell candidates there are unusual patterns or statistical anomalies that suggest something wrong in the count. But there has never been a case in Nevada of a statewide count being reversed by a recount and no known case of a local race being changed. In 1971, the Nevada Assembly seated the loser in a Clark County legislative district, but that was not the result of a recount. An investigation showed that a malfunctioning voting machine failed to register some votes for Republican Hal Smith, who was seated instead of Democrat Arthur Espinoza.
In 1975, the Nevada Legislature killed legislation that would have provided automatic recounts in extremely close contests.
A candidate who requests a recount must post money up front to pay for it. No figure is available for this year, but Ensign eight years ago had to post $59,108. Moreover, the candidates also pay staffs and consultants, including statisticians, to be on hand in the counties to oversee and police the recounting, and that can cost more than the recount itself. In 1998, Reid said he paid $200,000 to cover all the counties.
Angle’s candidacy was largely created by a Washington, D.C., political action committee, the Club for Growth, which provided funding for her campaign and entrée to other funding sources. CFG has not said whether it will stand the cost of a recount, but its Web site lists her candidacy flatly as “Lost.”
One intriguing aspect of the recount process is that, although county officials actually conduct the recount, the process is overseen by Nevada secretary of state Dean Heller, who defeated Angle in the primary. Heller was also in office during the Reid/Ensign race and won wide praise for his fairness.