The last several days this citizen-author has been reading from a variety of sources (from all parts of political spectrum) about the recount process underway in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Citizens have an interest in fair elections, and naturally the recount captures one’s interest. This post is meant to recap some of the developments over the last week.
The Basics of the 2016 Recount
This effort is lead by the Jill Stein campaign, which states that grassroots candidates “cannot stand a chance if our electoral system is rigged in favor of establishment, corporate-funded candidates.” The campaign also notes that the Green Party Platform supports mandatory automatic random precinct recounts. As of today, more than $6 million has been raised to support the recount process.
And yet, unsurprisingly, these are not random recounts. These three states, collectively swinging from red to blue, would put Clinton above 270 votes in the Electoral College.
- 47.9% Trump, 46.9% Clinton
- Difference 27,000 votes
- 47.6% Trump, 47.4% Clinton
- Difference 10,700 votes
- 48.4% Trump, 47.3% Clinton
- Difference 69,000 votes
It is clear that the recount is, in fact, a strategic probing of the process, and hence the legitimacy of Trump’s win, in those three states.
Reasonable Response 1: The Recount is Unnecessary
A reasonable citizen could dismiss the recount as a waste of time and money, as Priebus suggested on FoxNews yesterday. He went on in the interview to say that “this is a total and complete distraction and a fraud.” (Maybe a distraction, but “fraud” is puzzling. Recounts are transparent and nonpartisan by design.)
It also seems that a reasonable person could point out the apparent hypocrisy of criticism aimed at Trump’s unwillingness to accept the election results in the third debate, with Clinton stating, “We’ve had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them.” Marc Elias, the campaign’s general counsel, writes, that no “actionable evidence of hacking” was uncovered.
Likewise, the Obama administration, as reported by Politico, “stands behind our election results, which accurately reflect the will of the American people…We believe our elections were free and fair from a cybersecurity perspective.”
Reasonable Response 2: The Recount is Win-Win
On the other hand, a few facts seem worthy of mention to understand the context:
- Clinton’s lead in the popular vote is more than 2 million. We know that voters do note choose the president, but rather elect members of the Electoral College in generally winner-take-all contests by state. But the margin of lead in the popular vote understandably causes distraught feelings.
- J. Alex Halderman, a University of Michigan computer scientist and director of the Center for Computer Security and Society, discusses the methods one might use to hack voting machines. As an expert in security, he describes what can be done. “A skilled attacker’s work might leave no visible signs.” He also notes that this election year has seen an unprecedented number of cyberattacks related to the election, from infiltrating email accounts to stealing voter registration data.
- The federal government has publicly asserted here and here that the Russian government was behind the cyberattacks.
- Halderman goes on to write that the difference between the pre-election polls and the results was likely systematic polling error, not cyberattacks. This does not mean cyberattacks are impossible; on the contrary, voting machines have a “serious cybersecurity problem”, and he laments that this is not in the news.
Halderman and the Green Party agree about the value of routinely examining physical evidence–paper ballots. In our current system, nobody examines the ballots unless candidates push for it by petitioning for a recount.
And so, a recount can be win-win, in that either the recount reassures voters that the election results are valid, or the recount rectifies simple, non-malicious errors. Yet another implied benefit is that the recount may demonstrate systematic yet previously undetected fraud (Russia!), but across the political spectrum this appears to be considered the least likely possibility by far.
Let’s Make a 2×2 Table
This citizen-author sees reasonable perspectives on both sides: a recount is either unnecessary, or it can provide clarity regardless of the results (ambiguous hanging chads notwithstanding). Although a recount is inherently a questioning of election results, a valid argument can be made that requesting a recount is not a fundamental undermining of the election process, because it looks to facts and evidence.
One of this citizen-author’s favorite ways to describe things is by use of a 2×2 table. Along the top are the possibilities of a recount in terms of the outcome: the original results are either confirmed or refuted. And at the left are the possibilities of a recount in terms of the process: the process is found to be fair (though it may be subject to non-malicious errors), or the process is found to be corrupted by hacking, tampering, or outside influence.
- Status Quo The recount confirms Trump the winner of all three states, and the recount results match original reporting. The result is peace of mind for unsettled Clinton voters.
- Discovery Although the process has no evidence of fraud, the recount demonstrates Clinton actually won one or more of the states. Unless the recount leads to a reversal in all three states, Trump will still be the president. But one imagines an understandable increase in national frustration, accompanied by additional claims.
- Unstable Status Quo The recount confirms Trump the winner of all three states, but evidence of hacking or tampering is found. This result will be bound to result in anger and protest, but could also lead to valuable process reforms.
- Disruption The recount shows Clinton the winner of at least one state, and evidence of hacking or tampering is found. The details of the aftermath of this finding are not difficult to imagine.
Elias’s written comments suggest the weight of likelihood on the Status Quo, because of lack of evidence of hacking, and because recounts have never overcome a margin as big as even the smallest margin above. Obviously the campaign is allowing for other possibilities to be discovered, and so time and money will be spent on the recount.
Putting it all together, a recount is not an unusual part of the electoral process. Whatever the motivations, suspicions, or likelihood of results, the important part is that the process is fair and transparent. And although a claim to respect the electoral process may include requesting a recount, it certainly means accepting the results of that recount.
By considering both the election process and the election outcomes, this 2×2 framework may be useful for organizing perspectives and opinions in coming weeks.