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The presidential recount, explained

Nation Goes To The Polls In Contentious Presidential Election Between Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

Former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s ill-fated call for a recount is finally nearing an end.

Efforts in Michigan and Pennsylvania were both stopped by federal judges. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin both certified Trump’s victory on December 12.

In the three states that lost Hillary Clinton the election, Stein — who only earned about 1 percent of the national vote and ran a campaign on just $2.5 million — was successfully able to carry out a recount in one, Wisconsin, where Trump remained the victor and the results were largely unchanged.

For many Democrats who felt like Clinton’s popular vote win — by more than 2 million votes — meant she should have won on November 8, Stein’s call for a recount became an avenue for hope. How could Clinton have lost the election by a combined margin of about 107,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania? Stein raised more than $7 million — many millions more than her entire campaign — for the effort.

But Election Day results, and now Stein’s recounts, have cemented Donald Trump’s win, and all of these recounts have proven to be an incredibly difficult exercise that could use some simplification. The Electoral College is set to vote on December 19, and the last-ditch efforts to stop Trump from taking the White House are running out of time.

Why was there a presidential recount?

This all started over Thanksgiving week, when a group of experts raised questions about the validity of the election results, giving Clinton supporters enough fodder to turn feelings into actual skepticism.

To be clear, the professor behind this study is pretty sure the fault lies in systematic polling error, but he says it’s possible the results could have been hacked by Russians or other nefarious actors. It’s possible.

That was enough for Stein to push forward with a recount, raising more than $7 million and calling into question the “integrity of electronic voting machines.” A long-shot internet theory about what went wrong with the 2016 election had become real.

There are many reasons to be skeptical of these stolen election claims, as my colleague Andrew Prokop explained, and Democrats hoping for a change in election outcome shouldn’t have held their breath. There was no direct evidence of voter fraud, hacking, or a stolen election.

But Stein, who had raised the money to do the recount, said it’s not about changing the outcome at all — it’s about the principle of accurately counted ballots.

“I do not favor one candidate over the other among the establishment candidates,” she told NPR. “It's also a question of what was the vote count for Greens and for Libertarians? We want to know that the votes for Green candidates are getting counted accurately as are the votes for other candidates.”

This recount, while unable to take away Trump’s victory, does signal growing concern over voting vulnerabilities — and that should be enough to make post-election audits a more standard practice.

Stein got a recount in Wisconsin and hit a roadblock in Michigan and Pennsylvania

Stein successfully filed for a recount in Wisconsin and Michigan and lost a legal battle for a recount in Pennsylvania, after filing a petition on behalf of 100 voters, her campaign told Politico.

These are all states Hillary Clinton was expected to win. In Wisconsin, she lost by fewer than 23,000 votes and in Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes. Votes afforded to Stein in either state would have covered her loss. Trump won Pennsylvania by a slightly bigger margin, surpassing Clinton by slightly more than 70,000 votes.

Clinton’s campaign had been privately conducting a post-election audit and chose not to pursue a recount; according to Clinton’s lawyers, the margins, however small, are bigger than what would typically show a change of outcome in a recount. (In 2004, a recount of Ohio’s votes afforded John Kerry only 300 more votes in the final count.) “We had not uncovered any actionable evidence of hacking or outside attempts to alter the voting technology,” Clinton’s lawyers wrote. They did, however, cooperate with Stein’s efforts.

Stein’s campaign paid Wisconsin $3.5 million and put up the $973,250 recount fee in Michigan.

Wisconsin’s recount is done. It was complicated, and Trump is still the winner.

After beginning the recount effort in Wisconsin on December 1, currently all 72 Wisconsin counties have counted their votes, and Trump has been named the winner. Clinton added 713 votes to her total, while Trump added 844 votes, widening his vote total by 131 votes.

It was a complicated process.

On November 25, Stein filed for a recount in Wisconsin 90 minutes before the state’s deadline. The Wisconsin Election Commission agreed, and Stein delivered the $3.5 million estimated cost of the recount. (The recount is actually estimated to cost $3.9 million in Wisconsin, but the sum given to Stein’s campaign was short due to a tabulation error on the commission’s part.)

The commission, however, rejected Stein’s request to require the recount be done by hand, permitting “each county to determine whether ballots will be counted by hand or using tabulating equipment, consistent with existing state law.” But after filing a lawsuit — Clinton’s team also filed a motion in support of the hand recount — Stein failed to get a court order to require a hand count in all of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, meaning it is up to the counties’ discretion whether to conduct a hand count or not.

In an added roadblock, two Republicans Super PACs, the Great America PAC and the Stop Hillary PAC, filed a federal lawsuit to halt the recounts altogether. They were ultimately unsuccessful; US District Judge James Peterson said, "The recount looks like it's going smoothly and competently. It's not going to have any impact on whether the Electoral College meets or who takes office."

The recount was completed on December 12 — on schedule — and the commission certified the state totals by the December 12 deadline.

Pennsylvania’s recount was a long shot that failed

From the get-go, Pennsylvania was going to be even more complicated than Wisconsin. Stein herself conceded it required her to “jump through some hoops,” in a video explaining the complications of state laws. But after weeks of her trying different loopholes, a federal judge ultimately struck down her bid for a recount December 12. The vote totals were certified shortly after.

Pennsylvania has two paths for filing for a recount. Stein either had to provide firm evidence of election fraud, which she doesn’t have, or present three notarized affidavits from each of Pennsylvania’s 9,163 precincts, the deadline for which had passed before Stein began her efforts.

Stein filed a petition on the behalf of 100 voters “to protect their right to substantively contest the election in Pennsylvania beyond the recounts being filed by voters at the precinct level.” But after a judge ordered voters requesting the recount pay a $1 million bond to move forward, Stein escalated her approach, filing a federal lawsuit “on constitutional grounds.”

Philadelphia US District Judge Paul Diamond ultimately struck down Stein’s bid, stating that there was no evidence of hacking, and, because the votes must be finalized by December 13, there is no time for a recount.

But even if Stein had been able to pull off this recount, there was another obstacle: Pennsylvania is one of 15 states that use electronic voting machines that don’t have a paper trail — in other words, there is no hard copy to manually audit the election results.

In Michigan, three days in, the recount was halted altogether

At first, things were going smoothly for Stein in Michigan. Two days after filing and paying for a recount in Michigan, Trump’s team and the Michigan Republican Party filed an objection to Stein’s efforts December 1.

“Jill Stein’s 1 percent temper tantrum cannot go unchecked,” Michigan Republican Party chair Ronna Romney McDaniel said in a statement. She said that “Stein is not an aggrieved candidate,” noting a state law that requires recount requesters be “aggrieved.”

But state officials rejected the Republicans’ blocking attempt. And despite Michigan law that states a recount can only begin two business days after the last objection, Stein won a federal court case to immediately start to the Michigan recount efforts on Monday, December 5.

But three days into the recount it all took a turn, when the same federal judge who allowed for the recount to take place removed his order, ultimately allowing the election commission to halt the process.

This wasn’t going to change the results, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign knew that

Changing the outcome of the election would have taken a lot. Results would have had to be reversed in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania for Clinton to win 270 electoral votes. And the odds of that happening are close to zero.

Even the Clinton campaign is “fully aware that the number of votes separating Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the closest of these states  —  Michigan  —  well exceeds the largest margin ever overcome in a recount.” That’s probably why they didn’t pursue it themselves.

Here is the statement from Clinton’s lawyers:

Because we had not uncovered any actionable evidence of hacking or outside attempts to alter the voting technology, we had not planned to exercise this option ourselves, but now that a recount has been initiated in Wisconsin, we intend to participate in order to ensure the process proceeds in a manner that is fair to all sides. If Jill Stein follows through as she has promised and pursues recounts in Pennsylvania and Michigan, we will take the same approach in those states as well. We do so fully aware that the number of votes separating Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the closest of these states — Michigan — well exceeds the largest margin ever overcome in a recount. But regardless of the potential to change the outcome in any of the states, we feel it is important, on principle, to ensure our campaign is legally represented in any court proceedings and represented on the ground in order to monitor the recount process itself.

The campaign is grateful to all those who have expended time and effort to investigate various claims of abnormalities and irregularities. While that effort has not, in our view, resulted in evidence of manipulation of results, now that a recount is underway, we believe we have an obligation to the more than 64 million Americans who cast ballots for Hillary Clinton to participate in ongoing proceedings to ensure that an accurate vote count will be reported.

Unsurprisingly, Trump thinks this is a “scam” — a ploy by Stein to “fill her coffers” and a desperate attempt by the “badly defeated” Democrats to unsuccessfully change the outcome. (Stein’s campaign has said the money raised is being held in a segregated account and will only be spent on recount efforts.)

Trump was right that it wasn’t going to change anything. But it’s no surprise that Clinton, who amassed a popular vote lead of more than 2 million and lost the election by only 100,000 votes in three crucial electoral states, was willing to cooperate this one last time.

Stein isn’t going off a lot of evidence, and large-scale election hacking is pretty unlikely. That shouldn’t stop post-election audits.

Questioning the validity of vote totals was a familiar narrative by Election Day, largely spurred by Trump himself. He repeatedly said Clinton could only win if she stole the election, insinuating he wouldn’t have conceded the election.

This is a different situation. Clinton has already conceded, and there isn’t any hard evidence that election fraud occurred in any impactful way. Stein is warning voters of the danger of what she calls “hack-friendly” machines, and while it’s true that electronic voting machines can be easily manipulated to change voting results, it’s actually pretty difficult to execute large-scale voter fraud of this nature.

What Stein is proving here is that in all this talk of hacking — and international governmental interference and voter fraud — there is a way to find out whether the vote totals are accurate: If there is a paper trail, official vote totals can be easily verified in a manual recount.

As Vox’s Tim Lee writes, “If no one manually checks to verify that the electronic results were accurate, it’s totally rational for the public to doubt the integrity of the results.” Lee proposes a solution:

The solution is to make recounts (or equally reliable but much more affordable statistical audits) a routine part of the vote-counting process. If election officials audit the results of every election, then the decision to audit a particular election won’t give credence to conspiracy theorists, and it will bolster rather than undermine public confidence.

In other words, it’s an expensive process with many obstacles. It doesn’t have to be.