President-elect Donald Trump’s post-election victory party has veered into a dizzying paradox.
Rather than celebrating, he is amplifying far-right conspiracies to undermine the credibility of an election he won. At the same time, he is finding some common cause in the quixotic effort by the fringe left to prevent him from reaching the White House.
The chances of changing the election result with selective ballot recounts, as some on the left hope, or finding widespread voter fraud as alleged by Trump are next to nil. Yet a combination of self-interest and a desire for misdirection have propelled factions of both parties to debate the results of an election already decisively settled.
Trump’s motives are often hard to pinpoint. But by pushing the unsubstantiated myth that millions of ballots were cast illegally for his opponent, as he has done on Twitter in recent days, he may be building the case to claim a larger mandate for his victory despite the fact that Hillary Clinton is leading the popular vote by more than 2 million votes.
The issue also distracts attention from mounting questions about the financial conflicts of interest he is likely to have in the White House, given that he plans to allow his children to run his international real estate and branding business while he serves as president. Finally, Trump’s rhetoric may also sow the seeds of future efforts to propose more restrictive voting rules championed by some of his top advisers.
At the other end of the ideological spectrum, failed Green Party candidate Jill Stein has been seeking voter recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, three states Trump won and that together carry enough electoral votes to give the election to Clinton. Reversing the result in just one of the states, let alone all three, is all but impossible. Yet Stein’s gambit allows her to raise money and attract attention to a candidacy that failed to galvanize the vast majority of voters.
“I’ve never seen this kind of attack on poll workers and how the system works,” said Mark Thomsen, a Democratic appointee who is chairman of the Elections Commission in Wisconsin, the first state in which Stein sought a recount. “We’re going to play it out, and I’m confident that the president-elect is going to win. We’re doing everything we can so that it’s timely and that it doesn’t impact the Electoral College.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, tweeted that the expense – $3.5 million in his state – was “hard to justify” given that Trump’s margin of victory was four times that of the closest presidential election in Wisconsin. It was also 17 times the largest revised margin resulting from any recount in the last 16 years.
Wisconsin was set to begin recounting nearly 3 million ballots Thursday if Stein and another minor-party candidate who also petitioned for it came up with the money to pay for it by Tuesday afternoon. The expense is due in part to hiring thousands of temporary workers needed to meet a federal deadline of Dec. 13 to complete the tallies. Stein said she has raised $6.5 million.
The two other states could follow, though Stein may lack the organization to finish the job. On Monday, she announced she had been successful in initiating recounts in only 100 of more than 9,000 Pennsylvania precincts. She needs voters from each precinct to contest results on her behalf.
Trump leads by 22,177 votes in Wisconsin, according to the last county-by-county figures released by the state Elections Commission. The president-elect also leads by 68,030 votes in Pennsylvania and 10,704 in Michigan, which certified its results Monday.
Statewide ballot recounts are rare, and examples of swinging the outcome of elections are even rarer. Just 27 statewide elections were subject to recounts from 2000 to 2015, according to an analysis from the nonprofit group FairVote, reported by FiveThirtyEight, with an average of 282 votes shifting as a result. Only three candidates won elections because of recounts, according to the analysis.
“I’ve never seen a recount overturn margins as large as the ones we’re dealing with here,” said David Wasserman, an elections analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report who is closely monitoring the state-by-state electoral tallies.
Clinton’s campaign, even as it agrees with that assessment, has made the awkward decision to participate, albeit minimally, in the recount. Her campaign did its own due diligence in Wisconsin and other states and found no “actionable evidence” of vote manipulation that would merit challenging, and saw little chance that a recount would overturn the election result, according to campaign attorney Marc Elias. But in light of Stein’s efforts, the Clinton campaign said it was important, “on principle, to ensure our campaign is legally represented” in any recount proceedings.
Trump, though he criticized Stein, echoed her distrust in the system, which he called rigged throughout the election. On Twitter, he made a baseless claim of “serious voter fraud” in three states he lost – Virginia, New Hampshire and California – and asserted without evidence that he would have “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
Trump’s spokesman, Jason Miller, on Monday referred to Stein’s “recount nonsense” while talking up Trump’s “mandate to push forward” on his agenda. He decried the media for “chasing the shiny object of the Jill Stein recount effort.”
Yet he defended Trump’s accusations of widespread voter fraud elsewhere, citing studies that point to clerical errors on the voter rolls – but no evidence of fraud – and to a discredited report suggesting noncitizens had voted in the 2008 election.
The last time Wisconsin, whose Elections Commission met Monday to review recount procedures, had a statewide recount was in a state Supreme Court race in 2011. In an election with just more than half as many ballots cast as in this month’s election, it cost $520,000, according to an Associated Press survey of county clerks.
Wisconsin has no threshold for triggering an automatic recount, leaving it up to candidates to request, and pay for, any re-tallying of the votes. Candidates must also state a reason for seeking the recount – evidence of fraud or irregularities, for instance.
On Friday, just ahead of a deadline, Stein submitted her request to the Elections Commission, leveling accusations of foreign tampering.
“After a presidential election tarnished by the use of outdated and unreliable machines and accusations of irregularities and hacks, people of all political persuasions are asking if our election results are reliable,” Stein said in a statement Monday.
Wisconsin election officials Monday repeatedly expressed doubt about whether a recount would reverse Trump’s victory in the state, while challenging Stein’s claims of irregularities resulting from a potential hack.
Though different counties use different voting machines, none are ever online. State law requires rigorous security measures for all machines, including testing 10 days before the election. Tampering with them would require “unfettered physical access to voting equipment,” said Michael Haas, the Elections Commission administrator.
“There are a number of reasons why we are skeptical of any claims that voting equipment is either not working correctly or being tampered within the state of Wisconsin,” he said.
The commission says its elections administration is the most decentralized in the country, primarily run at the county level with state supervision, another hurdle for anyone trying to perpetuate widespread voter fraud.
“It’s most unfortunate that the president-elect is claiming that there’s huge problems with our system and it’s feeding what I’ll call the conspiracy theory,” said Thomsen, the commission chairman. “I’d like him to come down out of his Trump Tower … and spend time with the folks on the ground who are counting these votes.”