When an attorney for Hillary Clinton announced Saturday that the Democratic nominee’s campaign would participate in a recount of the presidential votes in the state of Wisconsin being called by Green Party candidate Jill Stein, supporters of president-elect Donald Trump were variously furious, sarcastic or just dismissive.
But Trump loyalists should probably relax and recognize that their man’s former rival is probably doing him a favor. In fact, she’s probably doing everybody a favor. That’s not because the recount in Wisconsin, and additional recounts in Michigan and Pennsylvania, are at all likely to change the outcome of the election. They aren’t.
All three states were pretty close in terms of the total vote count. Clinton lost them by a combined 107,000 ballots, as attorney Marc Erik Elias noted on Saturday. In theory, if the recounts in all three states throw their Electoral College votes to Clinton, she — not Trump — would be the president-elect.
This isn’t at all likely to happen. While recounts have, in the past, turned an apparent loser into an actual winner (look at Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota) that typically only happens in cases where the candidates are separated by a relative handful of votes — a few hundred out of millions cast in the case of a statewide count. Clinton lost each of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by tens of thousands of votes.
So what’s the benefit of a recount when the likelihood of changing the election result is so small as to be virtually non-existent?
In any other year, that would be a hard question to answer. But this is 2016, an election cycle marked by a multitude of abnormalities:
- A major party candidate who preemptively declared that the entire system was rigged. Ironically, this is the guy who won. But Trump’s constant insistence that the U.S. election system was something that could be easily manipulated (even though it can’t) helped plant the seed of doubt in the minds of many voters.
- A concerted effort by a foreign government to interfere in the election. U.S. intelligence officials have declared in no uncertain terms that the Russian government backed the hackers who obtained emails from the Democratic National Committee and prominent Democrats, including the chairman of Clinton’s campaign. The resulting leaks were indisputably damaging to her campaign.
- Actual interference in the election by U.S. law enforcement. FBI Director James Comey’s decision to reveal details about his agency’s investigation into Clinton’s emails less than two weeks before the vote created further concern about the fairness of the result.
- Persistent claims of hacking attacks on state election systems. At least 20 states reported outside efforts to access those systems. While most, if not all, of these efforts were unsuccessful and may not have been related to attempts to influence the election at all, they still created widespread concern about the integrity of the system.
The combination of all these factors has created a strong impression among some Clinton supporters that an unspecified cabal of bad actors — frequently including Russian President Vladimir Putin — fixed the election for Trump.
For that reason, the president-elect and his campaign ought to welcome the recount, if only to prove that the most serious challenge to the legitimacy of his victory is baseless. To be sure, there will always be a small element of Clinton’s supporters unwilling to accept Trump’s win. But a full, fair and transparent recount would remove the doubts from the minds of a great many.
A recount confirming Trump’s election would also give him and his more vocal supporters another opportunity to mock Clinton and her backers, which appears to give them great joy. Consider it a bonus.
Trump isn’t the only one who would benefit. For example, confirmation of the integrity of the election system is plainly good for the country as a whole. The other main winner here, albeit in a painful way, would be the Democratic Party. If full recounts of three major battleground states all confirm that Trump won without any power, foreign or domestic, fiddling with the polls, Democrats will have to embrace the reality of their loss without some of the false comfort provided by shadowy conspiracy theories.
Of course, grievances about Comey and Russian email hackers will remain — and rightly so. But in the end, proof that Americans represented by a majority of the Electoral College really did vote for Trump will force the Democratic Party to come to grips with the fact that it ran a deeply flawed candidate, badly misread the mood of the nation, and in doing so lost many states that were considered reliably blue.
A recount confirming Trump’s win could be the slap in the face that Democrats need, forcing them to focus on the road ahead, rather than the car-wreck of an election that’s now behind them.