Why Have a Recount?

Richard Baehr at American Thinker had a nice conspiracy theory going until someone pointed out that its key premise is flawed. Baehr tried to advance the idea that the Democrats and Jill Stein are participating in recounts of the vote in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in the hope that the process will not be completed in time for slates to be chosen in those states for the Electoral College. This would, the theory originally went, deny Donald Trump and Mike Pence 270 electoral votes and throw the presidential election to the House and the the vice-presidential election to the Senate.

And, what would be the point of doing this?

If this goes to the US House and Senate, and the result is the same as result from the Electoral College without the recounts, why do it? The answer is to make Trump seem even more illegitimate, that he did not win the popular vote (he lost by over 2.1 million), he did not win the Electoral College (did not reach 270), and was elected by being inserted into the presidency by members of his own party in Congress.

He had to update his post to acknowledge that the 270 vote requirement rests on there being 538 votes. If there are fewer votes, then the number required for a majority goes down. In other words, even if Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin don’t convene to vote because they can’t agree on who is authorized to vote, Trump will still win a majority of all the votes actually cast, assuming there aren’t a lot of faithless electors. The House and Senate would not need to get involved.

Still, is it possible that the primary motivation behind paying for these recounts is to delegitimize and thereby weaken Trump?

I see no evidence for that. To begin with, the states weren’t selected arbitrarily. They were selected at the suggestion of a small group of computer scientists and election lawyers who noticed anomalies in the votes in those three states and contacted the Clinton campaign to register their concerns and encourage them to call for an audit. If you want to understand the broader concerns better, Prof. J. Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan wrote about them recently. You can read more about how an election could be hacked from MIT Professor Ron Rivest and Philip Stark, the associate dean of mathematical and physical sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. In the case of the three states, there was a discrepancy between how well Trump did in precincts without paper ballots and how he did in precincts that have them. That discrepancy could easily be explained by other factors than hacking, and it was probably a mistake to take that ball and run with it. In fact, part of their message is that a professional hacking job would not be detectable in precincts that lack paper ballots. So, recounting those precincts is basically a misunderstanding of the threat.

Still, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are three states where Trump won by relatively narrow margins despite polling that consistently predicted he would lose. In fact, Michigan isn’t scheduled to certify Trump’s victory until this afternoon, and his margin currently sits at 10,704 out of 4,799,284 ballots cast.

The Clinton campaign initially showed little inclination to force a recount, but they will participate now that Green Party candidate Jill Stein has raised the money and signed the required papers to make them happen. If there is some secret collusion between the two campaigns, it is well-disguised. In fact, Jill Stein continues to trash Clinton on a semi-regular basis, including for not seeking the recounts herself.

Stein may be motivated by a desire for attention or to raise money for the Green Party, but those interests don’t intersect with Clinton’s interests.

Now, a hand recount could detect systematic hacking of machines that tabulate paper ballots, even if the hacking code self-destructed after use. If there’s a pattern of Clinton losing (and Trump gaining), say, ten out of a hundred votes in precinct after precinct, that will be trace evidence of what occurred.

The possibility of this happening is the reason election experts think there should always be paper ballots that can be recounted and that audits should be a standard part of all elections, without any party having to request or pay for them.

If nothing like this is found, that will add legitimacy to the election rather than subtracting from it. If evidence is found then the effort would be self-evidently justified.

Of course, I have no idea what would happen then, but it would at least motivate people to demand paper ballots and routine audits in the future. This is clearly what motivated the computer scientists and election lawyers who raised their concerns with the Clinton campaign. It’s less clear that it’s the primary motivator for Stein. The only motivation I see for Clinton is that they feel quite correctly that they ought to have people present during recounts even if they didn’t call for them and don’t expect to benefit from them.

Now, it would be understandable for Trump and his team to worry that this is all an effort to call their victory into question and delegitimize him. But he’s the one who took to Twitter this weekend to argue that the only reason he is behind in the popular vote is because millions of people voted illegally. That’s not only delusional, but it does more to undermine faith in the fairness of our elections than asking for a recount. Since Trump presumably wants to seek reelection without facing millions of illegal votes cast mostly against him, he should be calling for an audit himself if he really believes his own nonsense.

I don’t know what he believes, but he’s pretty aggressively delegitimizing both his election and himself without any help from Jill Stein and Hillary Clinton. Their efforts are more likely to legitimize Trump than not, and are certainly better for that purpose than doing nothing.

Unless, of course, there’s something the recounts are going to find that will truly call the election into question.

As I’ve already said, precincts without paper trails cannot be properly audited and the integrity of their counts can never be verified. So, I wouldn’t expect to find anything conclusive in a recount of those precincts. All that will accomplish is to make sure that election workers can use a calculator correctly. Of course, sometimes they can’t, and sometimes their stubby fingers seem to always err on the side of helping Trump.

Personally, I welcome the recounts, as flawed as they are, because they should be routine and because they’ll either find nothing which will bolster confidence in the result or they’ll find something that should lead to reforms and more secure elections in the future. It’s win-win, to me.

What I don’t believe is that it’s all part of some strategy to throw the election to Congress and make Trump look like a chump.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.