WASHINGTON, November 29, 2016 – Donald Trump won the presidential contest because he won three states that have gone Democratic for over a generation: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania (the WiMP states).
Their combined 46 electoral votes helped push Trump to 306 electoral votes and the win. His popular vote margin in those states totaled about 103,000 votes.
Had the WiMPs gone for Hillary Clinton, her electoral total would have been 278, making her the winner. Almost a month after the election, her supporters still hope it will happen.
Since the election, a group of computer scientists and lawyers has questioned the WiMP results, and they’ve struck a chord with voters angry or dismayed by Trump’s victory.
The central claim isn’t that Trump stole the election or that Russian hackers changed the vote, but that the results are statistically improbable and that we owe it to the public and the candidates themselves to make sure that the results are correct.
Many recount supporters further claim that they don’t believe a recount will change the results, but that it is necessary for America’s faith in the electoral process and our national peace of mind.
A recount can happen only if one of the candidates who received votes in the state requests it and is willing to pay for it. Clinton conceded the election after the AP called it for Trump. It might have been awkward for her to turn around and demand a recount, but Jill Stein did the deed in her place. Stein launched a website requesting donations for the $2.5 million she said was needed for a recount, and within a day had more than that.
Stein subsequently raised the requested amount to $4.5 million, then to $7 million, citing increasing legal costs. Her website also warned that it might not use the money to conduct a recount. But the millions have rolled in.
Stein missed the deadline to request a recount in Pennsylvania, which has 20 electoral votes. Her legal team has decided to sue to force a recount, but Trump’s victory there was 70,000, a margin that will almost certainly not be erased in a recount. Thus even with reversals in Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump would have 280 electoral votes and would still be our next president.
So why pursue this if Trump’s victory can’t be undone? The motive could be vindictive – to delegitimize a Trump presidency in the eyes of voters. It might be to persuade electors to abandon Trump in favor of Clinton; even if Clinton didn’t win, Trump might be pushed below the 270 electoral vote threshold for victory, sending the election to Congress.
Trump would certainly win the presidency in the House, and Pence the vice presidency in the Senate, but again, the result would be to delegitimize a Trump presidency.
Another theory is that Stein, who has raised twice as much money in the last week as the Green Party raised for her entire campaign, is simply using post-electoral anger and Democrats desperate for straws to grasp to line her pockets and the pockets of her party.
After all, there is no guarantee that they’ll spend the money on a recount.
There are a lot of conspiracy theories floating around cyberspace, but the simplest, most generous explanation would be that Clinton and her supporters do indeed want the Trump Administration to take up its work with no taint of suspected electoral impropriety. They want everyone to know that Trump won fair and square.
In that spirit, we should point out that choosing the WiMPs for a recount is not the way to go about demonstrating the integrity of our electoral process. We gently suggest to Clinton, the statisticians and computer scientists working so diligently to ensure electoral integrity that they review some basic statistics as applied to quality control.
First, it isn’t necessary that a recount be done for an entire state. It can be done by county or voter district, and those districts can come from all over the country. If we genuinely want to ensure that our elections are proceeding fairly, we should choose districts at random from all over the country and verify the election results.
If we find problems, we can then put additional attention where we think it belongs.
If we’re going to recount by states, then the states should be chosen at random. If the concern is for states that use specific types of voting machines, then we should pull random samples from those states.
It would only be reasonable to check some down-ballot contests, and look at states that went both ways. The New Hampshire results should be checked perhaps, or North Carolina.
North Carolina is an interesting case. Republicans want a recount there in the wake of Republican Governor Pat McCrory’s loss to Democrat Roy Cooper. Marc Elias, the Clinton lawyer who is spearheading efforts for recounts in the WiMPs, wants to block a North Carolina recount.
If we want recounts, we should demand recounts across the country, especially in precincts known for their armies of walking-dead voters. The integrity of our electoral system is too precious to base just on the WiMPs. It demands a more powerful, more muscular statistical approach, and more broad-based.
We should applaud Stein, Clinton and their legal teams for their civic spirit and love of democratic republicanism. Stein’s willingness to spearhead the fundraising effort is uncommonly generous. Kudos all around, but let’s be smart about this. Ensuring electoral integrity will require an ongoing, wide-ranging effort that will continue from now through every election until doomsday. The WiMPs are not enough.