Recounting Chickens After They’ve Hatched
Late last week, as we were peacefully enjoying Turkey and “blowout sales,” failed Green Party Presidential Candidate Jill Stein followed through on a promise/threat to file for a recount in Wisconsin (where Trump won by 0.81%) alleging a whole myriad of issues. With a mere 90 minutes before Wisconsin’s deadline for filing, Stein’s petition was submitted to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. While Trump has seven days to object, the process, which involves a manual recount of around three million ballots, must be completed by December 13.
While the deadline for filing in Pennsylvania has passed, Stein and her apparent allies in Democratic circles have until Wednesday, November 30, to file for a recount in Michigan. For the record, Trump won Michigan by 0.23% and Pennsylvania by 1.13%. Interestingly, Trump lost New Hampshire by 0.36%, but there’s been no discussion or litigating that vote.
When the electors go to vote on December 18, 306 are expected to vote for Trump and 232 are expected to vote for Clinton. The way our Constitution has set it up, this is the only “real” vote that’s cast for the Presidency. While “faithless electors” happen from time-to-time, the odds of finding 38 Republican electors to vote for Clinton is non-existent. Sure, some might try to get Trump under the 270 threshold by supporting an insurgent candidate, but that effort is also likely to, at most, sway one or two “conscientious objectors.”
There is no doubt that Trump’s wins in Wisconsin and Michigan were very close. In the even both elections were overturned, for one reason or another, Trump would still have a victory, albeit closer, of 280 to 258.
The only way that the real result of the election could be changed would be if Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were all overturned. There is no indication that Pennsylvania was within this margin of error. The bigger concern if a recount of Pennsylvania was ordered would be whether the state would have the time enough to conduct its recount before the Electoral College meets to pick the President.
While this is fun to theorize: “what if Wisconsin and Michigan both are overturned and Pennsylvania is still counting so its delegates don’t vote, and there are faithless electors, so there are three people in the running and the election has to go to the House of Representatives?!” The reality is much more mundane. The overwhelming likelihood is that Trump will secure a comfortable margin in the Electoral College and be the next President.
So, why contest it? Well, there are two theories that you can believe. The first is the one that’s being put out by Jill Stein and Hillary Clinton’s surrogates: to make sure everyone’s vote was counted and that democratic ideals are upheld. Who could disagree with that?
The second theory is more sinister: to de-legitimize the Trump win even before he’s sworn in as President. Now, let’s not cast all of the blame on the Democrats and quixotic Jill Stein. Donald Trump, even his biggest boosters must admit, cast some doubt on the legitimacy of the election before it took place. Calling the election “rigged” was met with emphatic backlash from the left and even from disgruntled Republicans. In the end, Trump likely pursued the strategy to mobilize his base and prevent the Democrats from “stealing” the election from Trump rather than to actually insinuate that the process was actually taking place.
However, regardless of Trump’s intent, the outcome of his bluster on the issue raised the specter of illegitimacy before a single vote had been cast. At the time, clear-favorite Hillary Clinton called the rhetoric “horrifying” and said that it threatened the very institution of our nation. How times change.
Could this de-legitimizing of Trump’s win also be part of a larger effort to undermine the Electoral College and move towards a “direct election” of the President? Probably not. This is a pipe dream of the left, and has been since, at least, George W. Bush’s narrow Electoral win in 2000. It would require a Constitutional amendment to do, and there’s no chance of ¾ of the States agreeing to anything of the kind.
Further, Trump was likely correct when he theorized that if the election were based on the popular vote, it would have changed his campaign strategy from the beginning and it would have been a far closer popular vote total. He’s probably right. Modern campaigns are set up around the idea of getting to 270 Electoral votes, not a popular majority. If it were about a popular majority, all the strategies would change. Without waxing overly nostalgic about the Founders, if the vote were solely based on winning a majority, there would be no real reason to run a national campaign. Politicians would just set up shop in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston and coast to victories.
We could just write off the recount petitions as sour grapes, or the media looking for good clickbait during a drop-off in news consumption after the campaign, but the reality may be more insidious that it seems at first blush. Trump continues to fan the flames by tweeting that he will be vindicated by the recounts. Statistically, he’s probably right (and he needs to hope that he is). Trump is left with the option to sit back and look Presidential as a recount, and, in effect, challenge to his win, takes place. But, he’s Trump. He’s seized on the issue and has stated that the recount will prove him right. This isn’t the worst strategy if the idea is to re-legitimize his win. Though it does create bad blood and a feeling of “us against them” during a period in which the President-Elect has called for healing, it would serve the purpose of Trump being able to say “there, you had the recount, it wasn’t rigged, and I won.” (It, obviously, doesn’t help for Trump to tweet that “millions” of people voted illegally for Hillary, either.)
Outside of all the rhetoric, recounts, and hypotheticals, the likely outcome will be that Trump wins in the Electoral College on December 18 and is sworn in as our President on January 20th. It’s also the most likely outcome that politics will continue and the media will cover every bit of it. And we all know the likeliest outcome of all: Trump will keep being Trump.