Midterm elections may have concluded Nov. 6 in most states including Hawaii.

But that’s not the case in Florida, Arizona and Georgia, where voting margins are incredibly narrow in races for governor and U.S. senator.

In Florida, full statewide recounts have already started. In Georgia, supporters of the Democratic candidate for governor are hoping for a recount or a runoff against the Republican candidate, who holds a slim lead.

And in Arizona votes were still being counted as late as Monday in a Senate race where the Democrat clung to a lead. Had she not prevailed, a recount could have been triggered if the final vote margin was less than or equal to one-tenth of 1 percent.

At stake in all these elections are not only the power balance in Washington and key battleground states in 2020, but the vaunted principle that all votes must be counted.

It should also be a reminder that Hawaii is not immune to electoral photo finishes.

In the Honolulu City Council general election race last week, incumbent Trevor Ozawa edged Tommy Waters by a mere 22 votes. The state Senate race between Republican Kurt Fevella and Democrat Matt LoPresti, which was decided in the former’s favor by a mere 117 votes, was another razor-thin finish.

Hawaii, however, is not among the 20 states and the District of Columbia that offer automatic recounts if the margin between the top two candidates falls within certain parameters.

That is a shame. The Hawaii Legislature needs to introduce bills in the 2019 session to ensure that our electoral process is fair and accurate.

Voter holds their paper ballot stub at Farrington High School.

A voter holds a paper ballot stub at Farrington High School on election day.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Currently, the only recourse a losing candidate, political party or group of voters has under state law is to file a complaint with the Hawaii Supreme Court. It can allege “any cause or causes” including provable fraud and overages and underages that could cause a difference in the election results.

It’s a high legal bar, even though Hawaii has previously seen close contests.

In August 2014, for example, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz edged U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the Democratic primary by just 1,782 votes out of more than 230,000 votes cast.

Hanabusa chose not to challenge the result, but she said she was concerned about public trust and confidence in the process. A storm delayed voting in two Big Island precincts.

In 2014, the first Honolulu City Council general election race between Waters and Ozawa was decided by just 41 votes. The result was challenged by Waters, but our Supreme Court ruled that there was insufficient “uncertainty” to warrant a recount that could alter the results.

It’s not clear whether Waters will contest the 2018 rematch with Ozawa.

‘Explore What Is Necessary’

After losing the Senate primary in 2014, Hanabusa asked the Legislature to “explore what is necessary to ensure the people that their vote truly counts.”

In the 2015 session, lawmakers did introduce several measures calling for a recount process in the event of narrow elections. One of the bills, a Senate measure that would have allowed for a recount request in federal, state and county races where less than 500 votes or one-quarter of 1 percent of all votes cast separate the winner from the lower, made it all the way to conference committee.

Had the bill been law in 2014, the Schatz-Hanabusa race would have qualified for a recount. But, as so often happens at the Hawaii Legislature, the bill died with little explanation.

Several recount bills in the 2017-2018 sessions did not pass, either, including a Senate measure that called for recounts when the margin of victory is less than 250 votes or less than 1 percent of the votes cast.

Today, legislative willpower is needed to draft new legislation establishing automatic recounts. It’s not difficult.

As required by federal law, the Hawaii Office of Elections retains the paper ballots cast each election for two more election cycles before they are destroyed. That means the ballots could be scanned again or counted by hand, depending on what the Legislature requires.

Legislators might also consult “Recount Principles and Best Practices,” a 2014 report by elections officials posted on the NCSL website. The report found that the average “close vote” margin trigger is 0.4 percent. It also recommend that statewide and congressional races have a recount trigger “well below” this average.

“Although recounts challenge us, they serve an important purpose in our democracy,” the NCSL authors state. “Foremost, properly conducted recounts assure candidates and the public that in a close election, there has been a fair examination of the procedures and an accurate count of all legally cast votes. Recounts can also help us improve election systems.”

Indeed, if Hawaii voters know that their votes actually make a difference, our abysmal turnout rates could improve.

While most recounts do not result new election outcomes, it does happen. The Washington Post in 2016 identified three significant recounts, two that resulted in different winners than the ones ahead on election night:

  • in Minnesota in 2008, where Democrat Al Franken would eventually defeat Republican Sen. Norm Coleman by 312 votes out of more than 2.9 million cast;
  • in Washington state in 2004, where Democratic Attorney General Christine Gregoire eventually finished 129 votes ahead of Republican former state senator Dino Rossi out of about 3 million votes cast; and
  • in New Hampshire in 1974, where Democrat John Durkin beat GOP Rep. Lewis Wyman by 27,000 in a U.S. Senate special election after the general election race was deemed too close to call.

One more recount illustrates just how important recounts can be: In November 2001, a year after Al Gore and George W. Bush deadlocked in Florida, a consortium of news organizations found that a full statewide hand recount would have given Gore the presidency.

“But this was just two months after the September 11 terrorist attacks,” The Intercept reported Saturday. “The outlets patriotically buried the blockbuster news that George W. Bush was not the legitimate president of the United States.”

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