As it's widely reported now, Jill Stein's raising money to request for a recount in the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

The campaign site states this as the reason:

To give you a sense of the problem, the voting machines used in Wisconsin were banned in California after they were shown to be highly vulnerable to hacking and malicious programming due to lacking security features.

From my understanding, a recount is "a repeat tabulation of votes cast" (from Wikipedia) and the purpose of requesting this recount is to ascertain those votes cast using electronic voting machines.

I heard that not all electronic voting machines leave a paper trail, how would a recount ascertain the results? If the machines were hacked and data was changed, wouldn't a recount still show the same results? If so, why even bother to request a recount?

Sidenote: I'm not claiming that the electronic voting machines were indeed hacked; the theory does seem plausible. Just wanted to know the purpose of the recount and its effectiveness.

  • 2
    Yes, the recount would pertain to machines that had paper ballots to compare against.
    – user1530
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 8:14

1 Answer 1


There is more to an official recount than simply re-adding up all the numbers, or even re-checking each ballot. It's effectively going back and verifying the results of every single step of the voting process.

Each state will be different, but since you asked about Wisconsin specifically, I'll cite their official recount manual, with the recount procedure detailed starting at the bottom of page 6, in the section "How Does the Board Conduct the Recount?", which I'll summarize below. Keep in mind, that this process is repeated for every single polling place being recounted.

  1. Reconcile Poll Lists - Check the lists of actual voters, and make sure that each (separately kept) list agrees. This also provides the total number of voters (and thus the expected total number of votes).
  2. Review Absentee Ballots and Materials - Examine the lists of who asked for absentee ballots, and compare to the list of who returned them. Review rejected absentee ballots (and maybe re-include them), and defective absentee ballot envelopes (and maybe exclude them).
  3. Examine Ballot Bag or Container - Make sure no one has tampered with the sealed records since election night.
  4. Reconcile Ballot Count - Count how many ballots you have. If you have more ballots than voters, try to resolve that. (The reverse is fine.)
  5. Review Provisional Ballots - Check each provisional ballot and make sure it was handled correctly.
  6. Count the Votes - There are three methods for counting.
    1. Hand Count - Sort all the ballots by candidate, then stack them up and count them. If there's any question about which candidate was chosen, there's a separate manual for resolving that.
    2. Optical Scan - If the ballots can be counted by a machine, ensure the machine's seals are intact, run a test batch of ballots through it, and then if everything checks out, run all the ballots through (with everyone watching and possibly doing their own counts)
    3. Direct Record Electronic (aka touch screen) - Take the paper receipt from the voting machines, and count everything on it by hand. Compare the results to what the machine originally reported.
  7. Secure Original Materials - Put everything away.
  8. Prepare new Canvass Statement - If anything changed after all that, write it up.

The steps in 6.2 and 6.3 pretty much guarantee that every vote will be counted as it was cast, even if the machine was hacked to afterwards report a different total. Since no pre-totaled numbers are used, a prior fake or erroneous total wouldn't even be relevant.

However, the recount can't detect any discrepancies caused by a hacked machine recording the voter's intent wrong in the first place. That's where the idea of a "Voter verified paper trail" comes in: In theory, the voter saw the paper receipt (while it was in the machine) and confirmed that the vote was correct. In practice, I'm sure some people don't bother checking it, but enough would that any problems should have been caught on voting day.

I will note that PA mostly uses electronic machines which do not have a voter verified paper trail. I would expect something equivalent to the other steps to happen, including checking the machines for signs of tampering, but the Step 6 equivalent is "open up the machines and re-add their reported totals". This article has more detail, but it also points out that there's no centralized counting - any vote tampering would have to be done on a machine-by-machine basis.

  • Re "steps in 6.2 and 6.3" and "it can't detect": it's not clear what singular noun the pronoun "it" signifies, or perhaps there's a plural/singular typo.
    – agc
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 10:43
  • @agc - Good catch. Fixed to say "the recount" instead.
    – Bobson
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 12:21
  • Thanks, but sorry, the meaning of that one paragraph still seems unclear. As written, "the recount" might also refer to method 6.1, (a hand count), which probably would detect machine/voter discrepancies. Also 6.2 may (or may not) include a hand count. Also it's unclear if this would mean testing a possibly hacked machine by comparing it with a second run through the very same unchanged machine, or the same machine reprogrammed, some other known to be clean machine, or something else. Please clarify.
    – agc
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 19:41
  • I don't see how the voter paper trail can help against hacking, really. Sure, if the hack is such that the voter selects Hillary and it instead goes to Trump (or vice versa) and the receipt shows this, then sure. But, once you assume the machine has been hacked, what's to stop it from changing the vote from Hillary to Trump but printing out the receipt to Hillary? Sure, you could then recall all voters to present their receipts a week later, but probably most people just throw those out within 24 hours.
    – Wasabi
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 20:07
  • 3
    @Wasabi - The voter doesn't keep the receipt - it just prints it, displays it to the voter, then stores it. Think of it like a supermarket receipt printer, except it doesn't get torn off between each person. That long printout is what gets recounted. I believe there's no way to physically access it without opening the machine.
    – Bobson
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 20:13

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