Elections workers and campaign observers crowd the tables during a recount of the Department 8 district court race in Yellowstone County on Wednesday. 

The winning margin in a local judicial race grew by six votes Thursday after a recount.

Ashley Harada, who beat Juli Pierce in the Department 8 race in Yellowstone County District Court by an original margin of 119 votes, saw the half dozen votes added to her tally after the manual recount was completed.

The change comes from votes that were interpreted differently by the machines than they were by elections staff reviewing individual ballots and applying rules for valid votes from the Secretary of State's Office. 

For instance, a machine might reject a ballot that had a stray pen mark in an oval, but the valid vote guide instructs officials to count a vote where a "hesitation mark" exists in an oval, when the second oval is clearly and intentionally filled in. 

Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund said the results showed the elections process is sound. 

"To find a six-vote difference in 69,000 ballots, I would say the integrity of the process is pretty incredible," he said. 

The onerous recount process took roughly a day and a half to complete and cost an estimated $20,000. A recount is available to losing candidates, and if their losing margin is 0.25 percent or less, Montana law requires the county to fund the recount. Pierce lost by 0.2 percent.

Conducted by hand, the work was divided up among six tables, one for each voting precinct. Election workers read the Department 8 vote on each ballot and placed it into one of two piles — organized into crisscrossing stacks of 25 — with a pile for each candidate. The piles were recounted by hand, ensuring all ballots were cast for the candidate the pile was designated for and that there were 25 in each stack. 

A third pile was made at each table for any ballots that could not be counted for either candidate.

Most were the ballots on which voters declined to make a selection in the Department 8 race. There were roughly 9,100 of those in November, or 13 percent of the ballots cast. Rutherford said nonpartisan races often see lower participation rates because people feel uncertain of how to vote. 

The rest were incorrectly cast votes. Examples include ballots on which both ovals were filled in but one was crossed out. 

While a recount might change the final tally, it has never reversed the outcome of an election in Yellowstone County, Rutherford said.

“Yellowstone County has conducted many recounts over the years and no recounts have ever changed the victor or the changed the outcome of an issue,” he said in an email announcing the recounts.

And while observers from both campaigns watched the recount, none filed an official challenge regarding the decision to count or not count a vote. Rutherford said he’s never seen that happen in his elections career. The parties always come to a consensus after consulting the rules, he said.

Pierce did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Harada has repeatedly declined requests for comment, including on her win. The elected office is non-partisan.

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.