The Election Is Really Over — Right?

November 23rd 2016

Mike Rothschild

While President-elect Donald Trump makes plans for his administration, a number of questions about the 2016 election are still lingering. Confidence in the fairness of the vote counting, claims of widespread hacking, and genuine questions about Trump's mandate continue to swirl.


Some of this will be put to rest on December 19, when the 538 members of the Electoral College cast their votes for the presidency. These votes will then be counted by Vice President Biden, and the winner of the election will be formally codified.

As of now, where do things stand?

Donald Trump won the Electoral College, and therefore the election, by a margin of 290 to 232 (Michigan with its 16 electoral votes has yet to be formally called). Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by around two million — a number that continues to increase as California absentee ballots are counted.

Did Michigan ever get called?

Officially, no. The state is still counting votes, and Trump's margin has narrowed to less than 10,000. But this is under the state's threshold for an automatic recount, which is 2,000 votes. The state will certify its results on November 28.

Are any states having automatic recounts?

As of now, no. Recount rules vary among the states, but none are close enough to trigger automatic audits of the voting results.

At one point, it appeared as if vote totals were down for both major party candidates since the last election. Is this still true?

Both candidates have seen their vote totals swell since the election, altering some of the media narrative. It initially looked like Hillary Clinton had lost nearly six million votes that Barack Obama won in 2012 — a number now closer to 1.8 million. Donald Trump looked like had fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012, but this was based on incomplete tallies as well. Trump now appears to have about 1.3 million more votes than Romney.

Social media is awash in rumors that the Russians hacked the election. Did they?

Claims of Russia attempting to put its thumb on the scale of the election have been around since the DNC hack earlier this year — a claim the Obama administration made in October when it formally accused the Russians of being involved in the DNC hack.

But this is a far cry from the reports put forth in New York Magazine that computer scientists are urging Hillary Clinton to call for a recount because they "found persuasive evidence that results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked." The allegations hinge on irregularities in swing state counties that relied on electronic voting machines, rather than paper ballots.

Skepticism is the correct posture to take in response to claims like this. The piece itself makes it clear that the group has no definitive proof. Beyond that, Michigan doesn't use voting machines, and narrow wins by Trump in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are indicative of proven trends — that Democratic turnout in Midwest and Rust Belt states wasn't high enough.

Even one of the experts cited in the New York Magazine piece made it clear he doesn't believe the election results were hacked by Russian infiltrators — only that the wide discrepancies between the polling and the final results in certain swing states merit recounts. (In a piece on Medium, he lays out why he spoke to the Clinton campaign.)

So calling the Department of Justice and demanding they audit the vote won't help?

No, it won't. The DOJ investigates individual incidents of voter intimidation, disenfranchisement, or suppression. Despite viral memes and tweet storms that have claimed otherwise, this is simply not the way recounts work. Outrage over the outcome of the election is understandable, as is confusion over the murky role that Russian hackers played before and during the vote. But demands for a recount should be directed to state-level officials, not the federal government, as they have no power to conduct a national "vote audit."

What about faithless electors? Couldn't they defect en masse from Trump?

In theory, they could. Electoral College voters are bound by law in many states to vote for the candidate who carried their state, but these laws are often just small fines, and have never been enforced. Moreover, almost every modern election has had one faithless elector. For example, John Edwards received one electoral vote in 2004, Lloyd Bentsen received one in 1988, and Ronald Reagan got one in 1976. Richard Nixon ran for president three times, and each time, had an elector defect.

But the last time there was a mass rejection of an elected candidate was 1872, when 63 electors cast votes for someone other than losing candidate Horace Greeley, who had died shortly after the election.

A couple of Trump delegates had threatened not to vote for him: one in Georgia and another in Texas. Both electors eventually walked these threats back. Likewise, two Democratic electors are threatening to either vote for a different candidate as a protest, or to swing Republican votes to a different candidate. Even so, the constitution mandates that an election without a majority winner goes to the House to decide. Since the House is still in Republican hands, the protest would likely be moot.

So the election is pretty much decided at this point?

Yes, it is.