Lawyers, Ready Your Pens: November Elections Could Mean Recounts

With the electorate as polarized as ever and the promise of plenty of close House and Senate elections this November, lawyers are already preparing for the recounts that are almost certain to follow.

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The midterm elections are a little more than 10 weeks away. Airwaves and the internet are brimming with attack ads. There have been town halls, debates and lots of door knocking. But with so many potentially close races and control of the U.S. Senate as the big prize, there's also planning underway for the possibility that the election won't end on election day for some races. NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports that all sides are preparing for that potential battle as well.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: If you think you're hearing a lot more about recounts these days, you're right. We're talking elections so close that no winner is declared on election day, opening up a process where ballots are counted again with lawyers involved every step of the way. This year we've seen them in Virginia, California and possibly some upcoming in Wisconsin after last week's primary. Chris Sautter is one of those go-to guys for the Democrats when a race appears headed to a recount. He's been doing this for 30 years and says things have changed dramatically over that time.

CHRIS SAUTTER: There once was a time when election recounts were quiet, boring legal proceedings conducted far from the glare of media and devoid of hardball politics.

GONYEA: No more.

SAUTTER: They're like three-ring circuses is where you have spin doctors and multimillion-dollar fundraising and legal maneuvering. It, in many ways, parallels the changes we've seen over the last three decades or so in campaigns themselves.

GONYEA: Sautter says his first recount that featured that entire stew of ingredients was an Indiana congressional battle in 1984 when his guy, the Democrat, finally won by four votes out of some 233,000 votes cast. That kind of politicized recount fight was an anomaly than. These days, it's the norm when the margin is razor-thin, especially after the 2000 presidential election and the subsequent Florida recount fight.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Decision 2000 from NBC News...

GONYEA: This broadcast is from November 14, 2000, a week after the election. Tom Brokaw is the anchor.

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TOM BROKAW: And in Florida at this hour, we have new vote totals after a day of legal and political maneuvering - new totals but still no winner of that state.

GONYEA: The presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore wouldn't be settled for another month. On the Bush legal team in Florida, was a young lawyer named Jason Torchinsky.

JASON TORCHINSKY: I think since the 2000 presidential election, there's just been more media attention on recounts than there used to be.

GONYEA: But that was only the beginning, he says. Then came smart phones and social media and the way Twitter now plays a huge role in helping people track breaking news.

TORCHINSKY: I'm involved in recounts after every election. Some of them make the news. Some of them don't. More of them, recently, have made the news. And I think it's because of the flow of information and Twitter and just the widespread availability of information.

GONYEA: Democratic recount specialist Chris Sautter says he conducts early workshops and training sessions with Democratic activists to make sure they know what to expect. Republicans are doing the same, and the lawyers for both political parties are already anticipating what may come. Remember the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota, ultimately won by Democratic challenger Al Franken? That one took seven months to settle. As for this year, here's Sautter.

SAUTTER: Given how close so many of these Senate races are - if that holds up, I don't know that there's going to be a full-blown knockout, drag-out recount. But I would expect that one of these elections is going to be close enough that it's going to draw experts from both sides.

GONYEA: Here's how Republican Jason Torchinsky puts it.

TORCHINSKY: I pack a bag on election day, and sometime between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. I figure out where I'm going at 6 a.m..

GONYEA: And we're all making our guesses where the hot Senate races - where the battlegrounds are.

TORCHINSKY: They're almost never where you expect. You just never know where they're going to pop up.

GONYEA: He then says it's going to be a busy fall. Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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