The Recount Road to Nowhere
Who started it this time? The behavior of Jill Stein, the Green Party Presidential candidate, who has filed in Wisconsin for a recount of votes cast in the Presidential election, and who plans to pursue recounts in Michigan and Pennsylvania as well, has been frustrating; that of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party contender, who joined the effort, human but disappointing; and that of Donald Trump, the President-elect, outrageous and destructive. The recount business has not brought out the best in anybody, and in Trump it has brought out the worst: in a series of tweets Sunday night, he alleged that millions of votes were fraudulent, enough to cost him the popular vote. None of this is going to produce any change in the results of the 2016 election. The sole item it may deliver is the one thing the country had been spared with Trump’s victory: a corrosive, conspiracy-minded, and slanderous attack on the integrity of our voting system. This is a critical period in which the shape of Trump’s Administration will be formed, one that presents all sorts of tasks and challenges for his opponents. Democrats have better things to do.
A candidate needs two hundred and seventy Electoral College votes to win the Presidency. Trump has three hundred and six, and Clinton has two hundred and thirty-two. This includes sixteen for Trump from Michigan, where his victory, by ten thousand votes, was certified this afternoon. Wisconsin has ten electoral votes, and he is ahead by about thirty thousand; Pennsylvania has twenty, and the lead is seventy thousand. A recount would have to reverse the results in all three states to get Clinton to two hundred and seventy. And, as fivethirtyeight.com noted, this has never happened in cases where the margins are as large as those in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania; even Michigan would be at the edge of past experience. (It is worth noting that Jill Stein won enough votes in Michigan and Wisconsin to account for Clinton’s losses there.) Stein’s Wisconsin application lists a number of reasons for a recount, most of which are paraphrases of a single thought: the Russians might, just might, have fixed the election—after all, they hacked John Podesta’s e-mail. Added to that is the general observation that electronic voting systems are, in any state, theoretically hackable. That amounts to saying that no one should really trust any results. The only example of observable irregularities that Stein cites is an uptick in absentee voting, something that may have many causes. Attached to her submission is an affidavit from a computer expert, J. Alex Halderman, who has long warned against electronic voting systems. But, apart from explaining why a paper record is a good idea, he doesn’t really offer any evidence, apart from press reports that the Russians have hacked other things and a general sense that they are up to no good. (There have also been reports pointing to a weaker performance for Clinton in counties with paperless balloting; however, as both fivethirtyeight.com and the Upshot have pointed out, any difference disappears when one controls for demographics.) And Halderman includes this line: “One would expect a skilled attacker’s work to leave no visible signs, other than a surprising electoral outcome in which results in several close states differed from pre-election polling.”
This is classic conspiracy logic: the absence of evidence is evidence of just how insidious it is. The failure of an event to turn out as expected is presented as evidence of some hidden hand at work, some deliberate interference. But did something go wrong in 2012, when Obama beat the polls’ expectations? Polls differ from one another; that is why candidates campaign in small towns in swing states, or why they should. It has been widely noted that Clinton did not visit Wisconsin in the general election. The results may have been “surprising,” but they are not mysterious. There were other late factors that may not have been accounted for in the polls: the F.B.I.’s ill-timed announcement about the Clinton e-mail investigation; the revelations about the Clinton Foundation in those hacked Podesta e-mails; and the decision of the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, to campaign openly for Trump, and not just for House candidates, as he had done earlier. Similarly, the Republican National Committee’s data operation—which, despite all the stories about Trump’s supposed isolation, was fully deployed in his favor—seems to have done a pretty good job figuring out where to send him in the final days, and the candidate, hungry for crowds, went. Trump, when self-mythologizing about his win, talks about a final rally he added, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which ended in the early-morning hours of Election Day itself. (“This doesn’t feel like second place.”) He may be right about that. Demographics are essential, but the practice of politics matters, too. One doesn’t want to pile on to Clinton; she has suffered a devastating loss at the hands of an unworthy man. Ultimately, though, a failure to face up to the flaws in her campaign is leading to some dark places, full of the plotting of foreign agents. And in many states, anyway, the difference between the polls and the final results was within the margin of error: this is why, days before the election, Nate Silver gave Trump close to a one-in-three chance of winning. And, as the Obama Administration confirmed this weekend, there is no sign of interference in the balloting. The Administration said in a statement, “We stand behind our election results, which accurately reflect the will of the American people.”
Nevertheless, on Saturday, the Clinton campaign joined the recount effort. It did so by way of a post on Medium, written by its attorney Marc Elias, which said that the campaign took concerns about Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania “very seriously,” especially given that “this election cycle was unique in the degree of foreign interference witnessed throughout the campaign.” The portrait it provided of the campaign’s post-election reckoning was one of “lawyers and data scientists and analysts combing over the results to spot anomalies that would suggest a hacked result”; of meetings with data scientists; of researching recount and audit rules; of an attempt “to systematically catalogue and investigate every theory that has been presented to us.” Elias said that the campaign had not found any “actionable evidence of hacking or outside attempts to alter voting technology.” (“Actionable” being the wavering signal.) But, as long as Stein had got things going, the campaign would sign on in order to make sure that it was “represented.” The emphasis was on the idea that there was some deep mystery that the campaign acknowledged and was engaged in puzzling out, with Jill Stein serving as its Miss Marple.
Trump’s victory has been truly disorienting for millions of Americans. There are many tasks at hand, including confirmation fights against some of his more alarming cabinet nominees (Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos), and over his still-to-be-named Supreme Court choice. Indeed, if there is a threat to fair elections it comes in the form of Sessions—who has worked to keep minorities away from the polls—taking control of the Department of Justice. Democrats might spend more time getting the word out about that. The Democratic Party, as a whole, must regroup and look for its next generation of candidates. Elias referred to the “heartbreak” of Clinton’s supporters; there are far more productive ways to channel that emotion than dwelling on the what-ifs of November 8th.
On Sunday morning, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, responded to the recount calls by pointing to how outraged the Clinton campaign was when Trump said, during the debates, that he couldn’t say whether he’d accept the results. These aren’t quite the same thing, but they are not entirely different, either. Conway also said, “Their President, Barack Obama, is going to be in office for eight more weeks. And they have to decide whether they’re going to interfere with him finishing his business.” That part is true.
It was also, probably, too simple and rational a position for Donald Trump to stick to for long. By the end of the day, he was tweeting, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Later, he added, “Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California – so why isn’t the media reporting on this? Serious bias – big problem!” Again, there is no evidence of what he has charged; rather, it seems of a piece with the rhetoric in his campaign, which suggested that there is something inherently suspicious when a lot of nonwhite voters show up at the polls. And it planted the seeds for him to ignore results he didn’t like. Some commentators tried to turn his words on him: if he took the insinuations about Wisconsin and raised them exponentially, wasn’t that a reason to doubt everything, and have a recount everywhere? Wasn’t he proving Jill Stein’s point? He was not; he was lying. When it comes to combating Trump, one must take particular care not to join him in the land of conspiracies, however intellectually engaging or emotionally satisfying that may be. One has to start, instead, by holding fast to the truth. That is a lot of work, too.