It’s nearly impossible for pot and education funding referendums to be reversed by recounts

Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Opponents of both Questions 1, which legalizes marijuana for recreational use in Maine, and Question 2, which increasing taxes on the wealthy to fund K-12 education, formally submitted signatures yesterday to force statewide recounts of ballots cast on these initiatives.

Under Maine law, the losing side of any race decided by less than 1.5% of votes cast can request a recount for free, but that doesn’t mean that re-examining these votes is likely to change the outcome of these elections. In fact, it’s a vanishingly unlikely possibility.

A Fair Vote study of all 22 statewide election recounts across the country from 2000-2012 found that none of them shifted the margin enough to make a difference in either of these two races. In fact, they didn’t even come close. The average absolute change was less than .03% percent and the winning side was just as likely to be the beneficiary of this kind of shift as was the losing campaign.

The largest shift in the period studied was in an Auditor of Accounts race in Vermont in 2006, which saw the margin change by just .11%.

According to preliminary totals just released by the Secretary of State, the margin in favor of Question 1 is .54%. For Question 2 it’s 1.26%. So, to overturn the closer of these questions, the initial count would need to have 18 times the average error of a recounted race, or about five times more than the largest shift seen in the study, and it would have to be in the right direction for the opponents.

That’s not to say that these campaigns don’t have the right to request a recount – that’s a privilege made explicit in state law. They may also have reasons for a seeking a recount other than changing the results. Perhaps they believe that using the recount process to publicly highlight how close the results were will be beneficial to them when they seek changes to these citizen initiatives in the legislature. Or perhaps they simply want to delay the implementation of the new laws for a few weeks.

What they aren’t able to do, however, is credibly claim that recounts in races with these kinds of margins have any real chance of changing the outcome.

In this vein, I was surprised to see Scott Gagnon, the erstwhile spokesperson for No on 1, complain that the Portland Press Herald had run a story noting that his campaign’s recount would cost the state around $500,000. Gagnon tweeted that the paper hadn’t written about the cost to taxpayers of Yes on 1’s appeal of an earlier Secretary of State decision invalidating some of their petitions and keeping them off the ballot.

The difference, of course, is that a statewide recount is likely both far more expensive than that court appeal he referenced and far less likely to result in a reversal in the complainants favor (after all, the pro-pot petitioners won their case and had their question reinstated).

I guess, in a technical sense, there is some slim chance that one of these referendum results could be reversed, but it wouldn’t come from the normal accretion of votes during a recount. It would basically require the discovery of some kind of massive error or fraud, stretching across multiple towns and local election officials. There’s nothing we’ve seen in the returns so far that suggests that’s a possibility.

So, if you voted for legal recreational marijuana or taxing the wealthy a little more to fund primary education, don’t worry. It may take a little longer, but the laws you and a majority of Mainer voters supported will still go into effect.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike is Maine's longest-writing political blogger and explores state politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center.