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Fact Check: Recounts Rarely Pay Off

Chula Vista City Councilman-Elect John McCann, who won by two votes, claimed the costly recount process validates the original winner 90 percent of the time.

Statement: “About 90 percent of the recounts continue to validate the person who won, which is me,” City Councilman-Elect John McCann said in Nov. 28 interview with NBC 7 San Diego.MostlyTrue

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: Chula Vista City Council candidate John McCann has edged out opponent Steve Padilla by just two votes – for now.

Padilla said he’s likely to pursue a recount if no one else requests one first. McCann told NBC 7 last week that he isn’t too concerned by that prospect.

After all, McCann claimed, about 90 percent of election recounts don’t end with a new winner.

If that’s true, it would drive home the notion that recounts are a pricey gamble for politicians in California, who must foot the bill or wait for a supporter to do so to trigger a recount.

The significant cost of a recount in San Diego County – likely more than $40,000 for a complete count, according to County Registrar of Voters Michael Vu – is ostensibly why Padilla’s waiting to see if someone else steps forward first.

It turns out, the 90 percent stat is mostly true, and it may even be a low estimate.

FairVote, a Maryland-based nonprofit that promotes election reform, studied statewide recounts across the U.S. from 2000 to 2012.

There were 19 statewide election recounts during that time, according to the group. Only three ended with a new victor. So about 84 percent of those elections validated the initial winner.

Former San Diego County Registrar of Voters Conny McCormack said that number would likely rise if local races were included too.

The initial winner maintains his or her win even more frequently in local recounts, said McCormack, who also served as the elections chief for Los Angeles and Dallas and now does consulting work.

“From my experience, it’s 90-plus (percent),” she said.

McCormack and other election experts weren’t aware of any counts that factored in local recounts.

Still, the election recount data that is available is close to McCann’s estimate, and election gurus said it offers a valid statistical comparison.

So we decided McCann’s claim is mostly true.

There are a couple nuances, though.

For one, we couldn’t find data that specifically addresses recounts in local races.

More crucially, though, this statistic is unlikely to apply to McCann’s race. He’s leading by just two votes, whereas most of the races FairVote analyzed involved an initial winner who was ahead by dozens if not hundreds of votes.

“When the margin of error is greater than the margin of victory then you’re in a situation where it’s a virtual tie,” McCormack said.

San Francisco-based election law attorney Jim Sutton agreed. The small difference means the tiniest shift could change the result.

“There’s no way of knowing at all which way they’ll go,” Sutton said.

You can also e-mail new Fact Check suggestions to factcheck@voiceofsandiego.org. What claim should we explore next?

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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