How Pennsylvania Recount Laws Work in Lamb vs. Saccone

rick saccone, conor lamb

Getty Rick Saccone (l) and Conor Lamb.

The Pennsylvania special election in the 18th Congressional District went down to the wire with Democrat Conor Lamb leading Republican Rick Saccone by
a mere 627 votes by the evening of March 14.

The New York Times declared Lamb the victor, saying that margin appears “insurmountable.”

Washington County was still painstakingly counting absentee ballots into the early hours of March 14. By the morning, Lamb’s lead had grown slightly, and some networks were declaring him the winner, but not others. Saccone has yet to concede, though, and the slim margin had some people wondering about the rules in Pennsylvania for a recount, a possibility that Saccone has floated.

By morning came word that Saccone might be considering running in the newly drawn district in November, as the courts ordered the district’s boundaries redrawn anyway in the 18th, meaning the victor won’t serve for long). However, what are the recount rules in Pennsylvania elections? It’s far more complicated to force a recount in Pennsylvania than it is in other states. That’s something Green Party candidate Jill Stein found out in the 2016 presidential election when she tried to contest the results in several states. Furthermore, there are differences between recount procedures for a congressional race versus a statewide one.

There is no automatic recount for races on the congressional level. “Recounts are not automatically triggered in congressional races in Pennsylvania,” CNN reported. A candidate would have to petition and get three individuals in each precinct to seek one, according to CNN. CNN is also reporting that there are almost 7,000 absentee ballots in the race still outstanding, many of them in populous Allegheny County, which expects to count them by midnight. The margin is so close it could come down to absentee ballots.

According to CNN’s David Wright, here’s how a congressional recount in the Lamb/Saccone race would work: “Sec. of State spokesperson Wanda Murren tells CNN that b/c this is a district race & not statewide, there is no mandatory recount here. Petitions are allowed, which require 3 voters in each precinct; have 5 days to file after the county completes its computation.”

According to Ballotpedia, in Pennsylvania, “a recount of ballots is required in an election district if three qualified electors in that district file a petition alleging that fraud or error occurred in the tabulation of votes or the marking of election ballots. Petitioners are not required to ‘specify in their petition the particular act of fraud or error which they believe to have been committed nor to offer evidence to substantiate the allegations of their petition.’ The petition must be accompanied by a $50 deposit, which will be retained by election officials if it is determined that fraud or error did not occur. This deposit is due to each county in which a recount is requested.”

State statutes on the automatic recount question reference candidates who appear on the ballot in “every election district,” which is clearly not the case in a congressional race.

Trump PA rally

President Donald J. Trump with Rick Saccone.

The special election is being closely watched, even though the district’s boundaries are being redrawn soon, because President Donald Trump won it by 20 percent and it’s considered reliable Republican turf. Despite those factors and outside spending heavily favoring Saccone, Conor Lamb, the Democrat, brought it down to the wire. Some say that bodes poorly for the GOP in the midterms, whether Lamb wins or not, because he made it close, and argue it is a referendum on Trump, who campaigned heavily for Saccone in the final days of the race.

Conor Lamb grandmother, Democrat, PA18

GettyLamb, Democratic congressional candidate speaks to reporters after escorting his grandmother Barbara Lamb to her polling station.

The race was to replace a GOP incumbent who stepped down in the midst of a sex scandal. Democrats chose a pro gun rights moderate in Lamb who says he is personally opposed to abortion due to his Catholic beliefs. He’s a 33-year-old military veteran and political newcomer, but he hails from a Democratic family that is well-known in Pennsylvania politics. Saccone, 60, is a former counter-intelligence officer for the U.S. Air Force in South Carolina, and he is also a state legislator.

According to Trib Live, Washington County was still counting 1,195 absentee ballots early Wednesday, and CNN reported “that another 203 absentee ballots remained uncounted in Greene County.”

“We’re not giving up,” a tired looking Saccone told the crowd on election night just after 11:30 p.m. “I couldn’t ask for a better blessing than to have supporters like you…. We’re going to keep fighting… we’re going to win it.” He left the stage to Eminem’s “Not Afraid” song. However, the practical matter is that Saccone is going to have to outperform his percentages in the non-absentee voting to win.

In contrast, just before 1 a.m., Lamb struck a different tone with some absentee ballots not yet counted, saying, “It took a little bit longer than we thought, but we did it…We followed what I learned in the Marines: Leave no one behind. We went everywhere, we talked to everyone, we invited everyone in. And we found that there is public support for programs like social security and Medicare that’s nearly universal.” Lamb told the crowd that “we fought to find common ground…mission accepted. People are so tired of the shouting on TV and in our politics.”

However, Saccone did not concede.

Learn more about the Pennsylvania election results here: