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Needing a provision for automatic recounts

By Staff | Jul 3, 2020

On June 23, Isaac Sponaugle conceded the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for West Virginia Attorney General to Sam Petsonk. The final margin in that June 9 primary contest was 140 votes out of about 170,000 cast, less than one-tenth of one percent.

Many states provide for an automatic recount, at public expense, in such a situation. Some states call for such a recount if the margin is less than one percent, while others have a tighter margin (such as a half a percent). West Virginia has no such provision.

Under West Virginia law, anyone wanting a recount, no matter the margin, must pay the entire cost. In a statewide race this could be several thousand dollars. Sponaugle, citing the cost, chose not to request a recount.

To further confuse the situation, had Sponaugle asked for a recount (and paid the required bond) he could have stopped the recount at any point he took the lead. Because of this provision, practicality would have required Petsonk to also ask for a recount, and would have been legally required to pay an equal bond.

I think this procedure is nuts. In the past, I’ve sponsored legislation that would have provided an automatic recount at state expense, whenever the margin in an election is tighter than one-half of one percent. That legislation never got anywhere, and I finally gave up on introducing it.

The argument against my proposed bill can be summed up thusly, “Why should the public pay to help someone who lost an election?” The logic of that argument escapes me.

The benefit of a recount that changes the outcome of an election does indeed benefit the person who was originally thought to have lost. But the primary benefit goes to the public, because that recount revealed who the majority had indeed elected (or nominated).

We all have an interest in knowing who has really won an election. We all have an interest in being served by public officials for whom the majority (or in some cases a plurality) of us actually voted. That means we should all share in the financial burden of discovering the truth.

Surely, a recount at public expense should not be available to a candidate who has lost by a convincing margin. How tight a margin should trigger the automatic recount? I think a full percentage point is too wide, and I’m willing to listen to an argument that perhaps a half a percent is too wide. But I wouldn’t want to get much tighter than that.

Given what just happened in that Attorney General primary, if I’m re-elected, I’ll re-introduce that bill to provide for an automatic recount in an extremely tight race.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a very high opinion of both Sponaugle (with whom I serve in the House of Delegates) and Petsonk. I ended up voting for Petsonk, but I think there should have been a provision for an automatic recount.

Delegate John Doyle (D) represents the 67th District in the West Virginia House of Delegates.