How Are These Recounts Funded, Anyway?

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots.

Today, Wisconsin kicks off a recount of millions of presidential ballots in the state, requested and paid for by Green Party Presidential Candidate Jill Stein.

Stein has raised $6.7 million so far to not only fund a recount in Wisconsin, but also Michigan and Pennsylvania. Her campaign's stated goal is to raise $9.5 million although that number keeps ratcheting up. 

What are the rules for a federal candidate raising money for a recount?

Presidential candidates involved in recounts may establish a separate recount account, or a separate authorized committee, subject to the same amount limits that apply to their campaign ($2,700 from an individual, $5,000 from a PAC), and the same prohibition on raising money from corporations, unions or foreign nationals.  

Those limits are effectively reset for the recount effort, which means that if a person gave the maximum $2,700 contribution to Stein’s 2016 general election fund, they can still give up to $2,700 more to Stein’s recount fund.

But according to Stein campaign manager David Cobb, the average donation so far is $46; only 14 donors have given more than $1,000.

Under FEC guidance, Stein’s campaign must deposit the funds into the separate recount account, and disclose the funds raised and spent on the Stein campaign’s FEC reports.

How can Stein’s campaign spend leftover funds?

Given the pace of Stein’s fundraising for this recount effort, a related question is how her campaign will spend the money raised.  That is, if her campaign does have any funds left over.

The costs of a recount can be significant. Wisconsin, for example, requires that the candidate petitioning for a recount pay for physically re-counting the 2.98 million votes cast which, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission, will cost at least $3.9 million. This includes paying county staff salaries, tabulators, and supplies as ballots are reviewed in Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Stein will additionally have to pay her own attorneys, staffers, and other costs.

If money is left over, Stein's fundraising page states “the surplus will go toward election integrity efforts and to promote voting system reform. This is what we did with our surplus in 2004.”

Separately, one Wisconsin Green Party official has claimed the excess funds will go to the party's local “campaign schools.”

The FEC has not provided definitive guidance on how excess funds raised for a recount may be spent.

In a 2010 advisory opinion, the FEC split 3-3 on whether a state party committee could transfer leftover recount funds into a general election account to be used for future campaigns.

But the FEC has permitted candidates or political committees to refund leftover funds to donors, or to request that donors re-designate their donation to future elections or future recounts. It has not addressed whether a campaign can use leftover money for “election integrity efforts.”   

National Party Committees can Raise Big Checks for Recounts

Although Stein may only accept donations of up to $2,700 for her campaign’s recount fund, the Green Party itself may accept checks of up to $100,200 to fund recount efforts.

This is thanks to a last-minute budget rider added to the “cromnibus” spending bill in late 2014.

That provision allows an individual donor to give an eye-popping $100,200 each to three newly created party accounts, including one “to defray expenses incurred with respect to the preparation for and the conduct of election recounts and contests and other legal proceedings.” Notably, the provision was crafted by Marc Elias, the top lawyer for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  

It does not appear that the Green Party is exercising this big money option. The entire recount fundraising effort appears to be run through Stein’s own website, which specifically tells donors they can’t give more than $2,700 – rather than directing them to write a bigger check to the Green Party’s recount account. If Stein and the Green Party are taking this stance for principled reasons they aren’t saying so.  

The DNC, in contrast, reportedly raised millions in big checks for its recount account during the course of the 2016 cycle.

Although the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party didn’t initially support Stein’s recount effort, now that the process has begun, Elias says the campaign has become involved “to ensure our campaign is legally represented in any court proceedings and represented on the ground in order to monitor the recount process itself.”

The DNC apparently won’t be dipping into its recount account to pay for the costs of the recount – those will be shouldered by the Stein campaign – but it may use those funds to pay Elias and other Clinton attorneys. 

Brendan directs CLC’s work before federal regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Election Commission (FEC).