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October 21, 2014

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The Senate Race:

Reid, Angle camps preparing for possible recount

Sharron Angle

Sharron Angle

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

As the 2010 election season stumbles toward the finish line, fatigued campaign workers, candidates and television viewers are counting down to Nov. 2.

Some, however, are contemplating this frightening possibility: The election might not be decided on Election Day.

In political circles it’s almost verboten to utter the “R” word — recount. But with polls indicating the U.S. Senate race could be decided by a hair-thin margin, both sides are ramping up for a potential recount fight that could drag on for months.

“Oh absolutely, there’s no question,” Democratic strategist Dan Hart said when asked whether he expects a recount in the battle between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican rival, Sharron Angle.

“There’s far too much at stake and too many people have too much invested in this thing to let it go,” Hart added. “If it’s close, either way, I’m not going to be surprised by a recount.”

Reid and Angle each has a history of recounts and contested elections stretching back decades.

In 1974, Reid demanded a recount after losing to U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt by 611 votes. The recount failed to change the outcome. Reid was on the winning end of a recount called for by Republican rival John Ensign in 1998. Reid won by 428 votes.

Angle lost the 2006 2nd Congressional District Republican primary by an almost identical margin — 421 votes. Rather than demand a recount, Angle went to court in a failed attempt to force a new election.

None of the few recounts since 2002, when Nevada adopted an electronic voting system, has found discrepancies. The only room for error would likely be with paper absentee ballots, of which about 60,000 are expected this election. And the margin of victory would have to be really thin for a recount of absentee ballots to change the outcome.

“Every recount done since 1998, we’ve never had anything change,” Clark County Registrar Larry Lomax said. “It always comes out the same.”

The last statewide recount was the 1998 Reid-Ensign matchup. It dragged on for five weeks, largely because a printing error on Washoe County ballots caused the counting machines to malfunction.

Candidates must call for a recount within three days of the Nov. 23 certification of results.

But a recount isn’t the only avenue for a losing candidate to try to salvage a win. If there is evidence of enough mishandling, fraud or malfeasance to alter the outcome, a candidate may contest the election.

In Nevada, that fight isn’t in the court system, but would play out in the U.S. Senate, which at the moment is led by Reid.

“It’s the least tasteful activity that a member of Congress can get involved in,” said Chris Sautter, a Washington-based Democratic recount lawyer. “This is one of those things that requires party loyalty no matter what. So it creates a lot of problems that people would much rather avoid.”

A contested election can drag out for months.

Nationally, a recent recount fight left Minnesota without a senator (and Democrats without a key 60th vote) for nearly eight months in 2008 as Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., fought a failed court bid against Al Franken.

Franken was installed in the Senate on July 6, 2009.

Nevada election officials said a similar scenario is unlikely here.

Nevada law doesn’t require election officials to carry out the time-consuming activity of determining a voter’s intent on ballots that have been incorrectly marked. Instead, it’s the voter’s responsibility to completely fill in the bubble on an absentee ballot rather than mark it with an X, a circle or any other means.

Still, lawyers for both Republicans and Democrats are keeping an eye on how the election is being conducted. Early voting, in particular, is being carefully monitored, and strategies for a recount or to contest results are being quietly plotted by each campaign.

Neither side was willing to say much about it.

“Right now our main focus is on early voting and Election Day, but we will be prepared if a recount is needed,” Angle spokesman Jarrod Agen said. “However, we plan to win.”

Reid’s campaign wouldn’t acknowledge the existence of recount plans.

“Unlike Sharron Angle, Sen. Reid actually wants people to get out and vote and we will work to ensure that every vote is counted in this election,” spokesman Jon Summers said. “While Republicans will try every trick in the book, we’re focused on getting every vote possible for Sen. Reid so we can win by a margin that would negate any need for a recount.”

Still, county and state election officials say they are conducting marathon conference calls with partisan lawyers.

“The party and the Angle campaign are both pulling together their resources and legal talent for the circumstance where it’s needed,” said Bob List, Nevada’s Republican national committeeman. “I would expect that if it’s within that kind of margin, that whichever side is behind would owe it to (its) supporters to have a recount.”

Voters weary of the fighting, candidates weary of the campaign trail and campaign staff working nearly around the clock can only hope the margin isn’t as tight as polls indicate.

At this point many are likely repeating Lomax’s mantra each election season: “We don’t care who wins, we just want them to win by a lot.”

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