Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein speaks to supporters while being heckled by detractors during the 2016 Democratic National Convention at Wells Fargo Arena.

You probably heard a lot about an effort to recount votes in the presidential election this week. A full, statewide recount of the votes could happen — but the effort, being led by Green Party candidate Jill Stein, is on the rocks in Pennsylvania.

Stein has raised millions of dollars to fund vote recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania (all states that were lost by Hillary Clinton and won by President-elect Donald Trump). But it’s Pennsylvania that’s likely to give Stein and her supporters the most grief, as its system for obtaining a statewide recount of the votes is complicated. So it’s important to know that there are three ways for a recount to happen in Pennsylvania:

  1. State Department-initiated: This form of a recount would be ordered by the PA Department of State. Under Pennsylvania law, the PA Secretary of State must order a recount if a winner takes an election by less than 0.5 percent of the vote. That’s not the case here, as Trump won by more than a full percentage point. This avenue is not possible.
  2. Candidate-initiated: Unlike in Wisconsin, candidates for office in Pennsylvania can’t just file for a recount. Instead, they have to essentially file a lawsuit and present evidence that gives a judge reason to believe widespread voter fraud probably happened.
  3. Voter-initiated: Pennsylvania voters can request a recount in their own precincts. If three voters in a given voting divisions sign an affidavit alleging fraud and requesting a recount by the deadline (which was Monday), a recount can be done in those voting divisions.

Stein is now employing both options No. 2 and 3. Here’s what you need to know about both efforts to recount the vote in Pennsylvania which could eventually merge into one:

1. Stein filed a short lawsuit Monday alleging fraud

Using option No. 2 to her advantage, Stein’s Bucks County attorney Lawrence Otter filed Monday afternoon in Commonwealth Court on behalf of more than 100 voters. The suit asks for a full, statewide recount of the vote in every county based on several issues, including:

The voters who are part of the lawsuit stated they also want a recount to determine whether any hacking of Pennsylvania’s electronic voting machines took place. Election officials in Pennsylvania continue to contend that the state’s voting machines, which are antiquated, aren’t especially susceptible to hacks. They also continue to say that safeguards are in place to ensure the election process in Pennsylvania is fair and correct.

2. The voter effort won’t result in a statewide recount

It’s hard to mobilize thousands of voters across the state and get them all to sign affidavits, and then file them with their county Boards of Election. The Pennsylvania Department of State doesn’t have a final statewide count yet, but Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt said by the end of the day Monday, 74 petitions had been filed in Philadelphia. That means the city would recount 74 of the 1,686 voting divisions in the city, or about 4.3 percent.

Wanda Murren, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said in a statement Monday afternoon that the state is “working to gather information from the 67 counties regarding their progress in certifying election returns.” She said some counties have already certified their elections, therefore closing the five-day window to petition at the county level for a recount.

The Department of State is aware of petitions for a recount were filed in Berks, Bucks, Centre, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, but isn’t aware of how many were filed in each county.

3. These two separate efforts could merge

Now, in order for Stein’s lawsuit to result in a statewide recount, a judge would have to rule that there’s pretty significant evidence showing voter fraud or tampering with the vote. That was not offered in the original lawsuit filed Monday. But it’s possible the filing could be being used to buy some time for Stein and her allies to come up with evidence they need to get that recount.

Meanwhile, counties will be recounting the divisions where three or more voters filed affidavits. If any improprieties are found during that process, Stein’s attorneys can use that as evidence that more widespread fraud or tampering might have occurred. It’s still unclear how long those individual recounts could take.

4. The lawsuit should move quickly

A judge will likely be assigned to this case soon. The electors must cast their votes for president in less than three weeks on Dec. 19, meaning Pennsylvania’s election results will need to be certified before then. If a statewide recount will happen — still seemingly unlikely at this point — it has to be ordered soon. That’s because it’ll take some time for the state to recount its vote, as the majority of voting machines in Pennsylvania don’t have a paper trail. 

5. Hillary supporters: Stop holding your breath

The chances of a recount happening in Pennsylvania are slim. The chances of a recount ending in an overturned result are way slimmer. Recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania would have to show Clinton won over Trump, and that’d be especially hard to overcome in Pennsylvania, where he won by about 70,000 votes — the largest margin of victory in the three battleground states.

When recounts have taken place in the past, they have largely separated from the original result by a couple hundred votes, at most. The idea that a recount would result in a difference of more than 70,000 votes? Unless a massive conspiracy is uncovered, it’s pure fantasy.

Anna Orso

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.