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Remembering a recount in Michigan that did change the outcome of an election

Dec 5, 2016

On Election Night it seemed clear the Republican candidate had won an upset narrow victory in Michigan. But some people wouldn’t accept it. They fought to get a recount.

The Republicans opposed it. But when a recount was finally ordered, irregularities and mistakes began to turn up. Figures had been transposed. Soon, the lead changed.

When two thirds of the state had been recounted, the Republican gave up. The Democrat at the top of the ticket had carried the state, and that changed history. No, that’s not just the scenario Democrats are hoping for, as the statewide recount of the presidential election gets underway this afternoon.

That’s something that really happened. Not in a presidential race, but in a contest for governor.

The year was 1950, when G. Mennen Williams, who was always called “Soapy,” was running for reelection for the first time.

Gubernatorial terms were only two years back then. Michigan, then as now, often voted Democratic for president, but Republicans dominated statewide offices. Soapy Williams had defeated a do-nothing socialite governor two years before, and the GOP saw this as a fluke.

They were determined to retire him. They got a popular former governor, Harry Kelly to take him on. Nineteen-fifty was a strong Republican year. Soapy campaigned hard, but on Election Day, drenching cold rains pounded the state, depressing Democratic turnout in Detroit.

Williams, who was only 39, turned to his mother, who was wealthy, and asked her to pay for a recount, but to his humiliation, she refused.

Every statewide Democratic candidate was crushed except Soapy, who was locked in a close race, but by early morning, had fallen behind by about 3,000 votes. He was preparing to concede defeat, when his aide Neil Staebler urged him not to. Williams, who was only 39, turned to his mother, who was wealthy, and asked her to pay for a recount, but to his humiliation, she refused.

Even though her son was governor, she was a Republican. In a spellbinding episode related by Thomas Noer in his excellent 2005 biography Soapy, Democrats and unions mobilized volunteers – teachers, labor union members and professors – to help monitor any recount.

Investigators found that in Macomb County, votes for a referendum on legalizing a form of margarine had been accidentally added to the Republican candidate’s total. In Oakland County, someone had misread a 9 as a 4, costing Soapy 500 votes.

The state was persuaded of the need for a recount.

Williams was soon ahead by 1,154 votes, and his margin continued to grow. Seeing it was hopeless, Republicans gave up, to avoid further humiliation and save money. Williams kept his seat.

These days, Michigan is believed to have one of the nation's cleanest vote counting and reporting operations.

Two years later, believe it or not, it happened again. That time, Williams had finished a few thousand votes ahead, and it was the Republicans who asked for a recount. But in the two intervening years, Michigan had worked to clean up its voting systems, installing more accurate voting machines throughout the state. That time, very little changed.

My guess is that little will change in the current presidential recount either.

These days, Michigan is believed to have one of the nation’s cleanest vote counting and reporting operations, in part perhaps because the state was motivated to make changes all those years ago.

When a close congressional race was recounted in 2000, almost nothing changed. But this has been a crazy year, and as the famous prophet said, you never can tell.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.