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The U.S. Vote Recount Matters — Just Not the Way You Think

Apart from allegations of voter fraud and worries over a potential electoral hack, U.S. voting systems are imperfect. An audit could help identify what needs fixing.

Beginning on Thursday, election officials in Wisconsin are moving forward with a recount of votes cast in the U.S. presidential election after Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein raised enough money to pay for the effort. Stein is also pressing ahead with recount campaigns in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Donald Trump won those states by a collective total of approximately 104,000 votes, giving him a victory in the Electoral College over Hillary Clinton, whose lead in the national popular vote stands at more than two million. If Trump's victories in those states was somehow reversed, Clinton would win the Electoral College.

Because the United States has such a decentralized voting system, the methods of the recounts will vary in each state. But one thing is certain: It will take several weeks for the legal and bureaucratic efforts to conclude, leaving voters facing big questions about the integrity of American democracy in the meanwhile. Did a Russian hack compromise voting in these states during the election? And if not - no evidence of a hack has yet been found - what will we learn if the final totals for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton need to be adjusted?

Some academic voting security experts say that the focus should be on proving that the election results were correct, rather than determining whether or not they were hacked.

That view is held by David Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford University and a board member of the non-partisan group Verified Voting, who supports Stein's efforts.

"I've been pushing for routine manual audits of elections for over a decade. In this case, it should be done all the time," Dill said. "There's been much heightened concern over the security of the election by Russians. There's no evidence of hacking voting machines. But there isn't any way to know whether machines have been hacked unless you compare them with paper ballots."

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Most machines in Wisconsin are optical readers. Voters fill out a ballot and feed it into the machine, which then electronically records the vote. In a hand recount, clerks would individually tally those ballots. In a machine recount, they would feed the ballots back through the machines, though they would also run a number of other checks such as reconciling the votes and signed names on poll lists.

Stein wants the votes hand counted, but the Wisconsin Elections Commission is leaving it up to county officials to decide if they'll conduct hand counts, which would take much longer than a machine recount. Stein has filed a lawsuit over the decision to not require counties to tally the state's 2.98 million ballots by hand.

Dill notes that California routinely samples 1 percent of the ballots in each county every election in order to double-check the accuracy of each election's voting machines. The process keeps election officials on their toes, and also trains people how to do an accurate recount.

He noted that Russian hackers probed voting registration sites before the election, prompting warnings by U.S. intelligence officials and the Department of Homeland Security. Even though voting machines are not connected to the Internet, as some voting lists are, suspected hackers could plant bugs in the software that run voting machines, Dill said. There could also be fraud or hacking by employees of either the voting company or elections office, or an attack on a computer that runs each county's election system.

"We don't know that it's going to change the outcome, we just want to know what's going on," Dill said.

An opposing view is held by experts like Merle King, executive director of the Center for Election Systems in Kennesaw, Ga. King says that every voting machine has a small error rate. If the outcome of the election falls within the error rate, the number of votes will change each time the ballots are recounted.

"The question is whether the recount will illuminate other issues such as bad ballot design, the lack of accessibility or deficiencies in the voting technology," said King, who consults with state and local officials in several states. "The answer is no."

King suggests that the numbers for Clinton and Trump will probably change. That's because the optical scanners that record the ballot marks "see" things differently each time they are used.

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"What you are going to see in this recount is the numbers will change," King said. "It's a change in the sensitivity of scanners."

If the numbers come back exactly the same, then some people will think that something is wrong, King said. But if they come back different, others will say that the count is wrong as well.

"Either way you will get differences in the totals produced," he said.

Recalls in the past have changed elections, such as gubernatorial races in Minnesota in 2004 and Washington in 2008, but the margins were a few hundred votes. In contrast, Clinton would need 22,000 additional votes in Wisconsin, 10,700 in Michigan and more than 71,000 in Pennsylvania.

And experts say there's no magic bullet for fixing the inadequacies of America's voting system.

"This election has illuminated the vulnerability of election systems to real and perceived hacks," King said. "There is a high level of anxiety in citizenry about conduct of elections. That's an emotional response. It's hard to address an emotional response with a technology."

On the other hand, sometimes transparency can be a good thing, according to Douglas Jones, professor of computer science at the University of Iowa and a voting security expert who supports the recounts.

"This is an election where we need to increase peoples' confidence," Jones said. "There are conspiracy theories on both the left and the right about massive fraud. Let's put them to rest."

Whether the recount will inflame or calm these theories remains to be seen.

A temporary elections employee records votes from a ballot that a machine was not able to process at the King County Department of Elections in Renton, Wash., on Nov. 7, 2016. Credit: Reuters/David Ryder WATCH VIDEO: How Donald Trump Won the US Election