The Wisconsin Elections Commission agreed Monday to begin a recount of the presidential election on Thursday but was sued by Green Party candidate Jill Stein after the agency declined to require county officials to recount the votes by hand.
It will be a race to finish the recount in time to meet a daunting federal deadline, and the lawsuit could delay the process.
Under state law, the recount must begin this week as long as Stein or another candidate pays the US$3.5 million estimated cost of the recount by Tuesday, election officials said.
Also Monday, Stein filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania to force a recount there and her supporters began filing recount requests at the precinct level in the Keystone State.
Stein, who received just a tiny piece of the national vote, also plans to ask for a recount in Michigan on Wednesday.
Unless Stein wins her lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court, officials in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties would decide on their own whether to do their recounts of the 2.98 million statewide votes by machine or by hand, with dozens of counties expected to hand count the paper ballots.
Citing the results of a 2011 statewide recount that changed only 300 votes of 1.5 million, Elections Commission chairman Mark Thomsen, a Democrat, said this presidential recount is very unlikely to change Republican Donald Trump’s win in the state.
“It may not be 22,177,” said Thomsen, referring to Trump’s win over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the vote count. “But I don’t doubt that the president-elect is going to win that.”
Thomsen dismissed Stein’s claims of problems with the vote as unfounded and misleading. But he directed his toughest criticism to Trump’s unsupported allegations that millions of people voted illegally nationwide, calling them “an insult to the people that run our elections.”
The commission is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans.
It adopted the recount plans unanimously.
Trump issued a statement calling Stein’s maneuver a ruse to raise money that would not affect the outcome.
“This is a scam by the Green Party and Jill Stein for an election that has already been conceded. The result of this election should be respected instead of being challenged and abused,” his statement said.
Stein is seeking to pay for the recount of Wisconsin’s election to make sure that the election wasn’t rigged in some way against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Stein herself received about 31,000 votes in Wisconsin, more than the margin separating Clinton and Trump.
“We must recount the votes so we can build trust in our election system,” Stein said in a written statement.
Independent candidate Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente, who received about 1,500 votes, also requested a recount.
Under the plan adopted Monday, the Wisconsin recount would begin Thursday, provided Stein, De La Fuente or both paid the US$3.5 million by Tuesday.
County officials would have to complete their recount by 8pm Dec 12 and then the state election commission would prepare the official recount for certification by Dec 13 – the deadline for guaranteeing that the state’s Electoral College votes were counted.
If Monday’s cost estimate is high, Stein and De La Fuente will get a refund but if the costs come in above expectations they will have to pay more.
Stein has taken in US$6.5 million since Wednesday through an online fundraising blitz to fund her recount efforts.
A spokeswoman for De La Fuente said he is considering his options for paying for his share of the recount.
Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said it took nearly a month to complete the recount in the April 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court race between Justice David Prosser and JoAnne Kloppenburg.
The city will now have about two weeks to recount more than twice as many ballots – a challenge that will play out across the state.
Most machines in Wisconsin are optical readers.
Voters fill out a paper ballot and feed it into the machine, which then electronically records the vote.
In a hand recount, clerks would individually tally those ballots.
In a machine recount, they would feed the ballots back through the machines, though they would also run a number of other checks such as reconciling the votes and signed names on poll lists.
A small percentage of votes in Wisconsin are cast on touch-screen machines, which also generate paper records.
None of the machines used for voting in the state are connected to the internet and could not be hacked remotely, said Mike Haas, the administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
In Dane County, which includes Madison, the computers used to prepare the ballot files loaded into voting machines are also not connected to the internet, meaning that it would take someone with physical access to the machines to hack them, County Clerk Scott McDonell said.
The individual machines are also tested by city, village and town clerks prior to the vote to make sure they are working correctly.
“Even if the KGB broke into the City-County Building, it’s encrypted, it’s password protected,” said McDonell, who doubted whether even he could rig the election. “I don’t know how I would do it without the (local) clerks seeing it.”
Even before the recount began, Trump’s unofficial lead of 22,177 was due to grow by 440 votes, as officials moved to correct a reporting error in Oneida County. Trump’s vote in the Town of Hazelhurst had been recorded as 44 instead of 484. (Clinton’s vote total was 330 in the same town).
Securing a recount in Pennsylvania will be more difficult than in Wisconsin.
Pennsylvania law allows recounts to be conducted at a precinct if at least three voters from that precinct request one.
Stein’s supporters started doing that Monday, but it would take thousands of voters to get them going in all of Pennsylvania’s precincts.
Pursuing a second track, Stein also filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania court to try to get a statewide recount.
Clinton would have to flip the vote in all three states to win the presidency, a possibility that election experts call extremely remote.