Remember When We All Thought "At Least the Election is Over"?

Jill Stein has called for a recount in several key states in the name of election integrity. Is she right to contest an election that Secretary Hillary Clinton already conceded?
Publish date:
November 28, 2016
politics, election, HIllary Clinton, Donald Trump, Jill Stein

Like a pretty large segment of America, I spent election night in a state of growing existential dread, followed by listening to a horrible little man crow about winning the presidency of the United States. I snapped NPR off as soon as his speech concluded and stared grimly into the expanse of the living room.

"Well, that's it," I told the armchair. "It's over."

I repeated that phrase a lot in the coming weeks as I ran into bereft Democrats consumed with wishful thinking on everything from using the president-elect's potential conflict of interests against him to trying to flip electors. I echoed it as I explained why I was moving forward and pushing people to protect themselves and get involved in local government and I said it again as I stood at the podium during the first city council meeting after the election to beg my local officials to think ahead, and be proactive. Tonight, the agenda includes a report from the ad-hoc committee tasked with exploring the possibility of becoming a sanctuary city.

It was a long and brutal and horrible election with a dreadful outcome, but it was over. The Democratic rank and file fell into line — the outliers were, for the most part, those leaving politics, with no skin in the game anymore. Senator Harry Reid's blistering condemnation was the exception, not the rule. It was depressing but unsurprising to see a push for a 'peaceful transition.' The president and vice-president looked pained in their public appearance the day after the election.

But it was over.

Until last week, when Jill Stein suddenly rose from the ashes to become everyone's new best friend with her pledge to push for a recount in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — for a price. The fundraising target kept going up, the estimates for lawyers' fees kept climbing, and people kept donating. In the millions. On Friday, she filed recount papers in Wisconsin, which agreed to move forward. This week, she's pledged to keep charging forward.

I trust Jill Stein and the Green Party on the national level about as far as I can throw them (for the record, I worked on a local Green campaign and greatly love many local Green Party politicians, but the party's national level efforts have been largely pathetic and destructive). I was suspicious about how this whole situation would work out, and I still am — while the Green Party harvested thousands of names and contact information from disaffected Democrats, the conversation about how the money would be used was frustratingly opaque.

States charge for recounts and that can be unpredictable. Attorney fees can also be variable. But the constantly shifting goal (admittedly, a not uncommon fundraising practice, let's be clear) was troubling, as was the uncertainty about how money not deployed in the recount effort would be used. "Election integrity efforts" is quite vague. It's also somewhat alarming to see Stein crowdsourcing information about filing deadlines on Twitter, as that suggests a disturbing degree of disorganization.

Especially given the nature of what Stein is asking for: a recount, and not an audit. For those unfamiliar with the distinction between the two, a recount is exactly what it sounds like: a manual examination of ballots conducted to confirm that the reported voting totals reflect the actual vote. An audit, however, is an examination of the process of the election, including the equipment and procedures used.

Fellow Veronica Mars fans may recall, for example, "Return of the Kane," the episode in which Veronica tracks down the truth about a crooked election. In the recount, the results match up: The ballots cast match the reported result. Or do they? Veronica discovers in an audit that the election procedures, which included voting directions, were rigged to tilt the election to the school's golden boy. For true election integrity, you want an audit, specifically a risk-limiting audit.

It's probable that recounting ballots won't change the outcome in those states. Auditing, however, might reveal concerning election irregularities — perhaps not enough to sway the vote totals, but enough to highlight weak points in the voting process that should be resolved to ensure election integrity. That, of course, needs to be paired with a plan to address another serious problem: Voter suppression, and the unknown number of people who weren't able to vote at all because they were kept from the polls.

There is, of course, a donkey in the room. Over the last few weeks, many Democrats have been screaming at the Clinton campaign to do something (when they weren't insisting that Senator Bernie Sanders would have won, which everyone well knows is not true). Yet the Clinton campaign remained largely silent.

I wasn't surprised by this, and I'm not sure why anyone else was. Secretary Clinton is one of the most hated women in American politics, and she's well aware that if she called for an audit, she would be branded a sore loser — and, if an audit determined that she was the true winner, a crooked one, since obviously she must have manipulated the results. A Clinton-driven challenge to the election results would be proof of Democratic corruption in the eyes of the right if she prevailed, and if she failed, the left would find some way to blame her for it. It would have overshadowed her presidency and she very likely would have been labeled an illegitimate president — and if you think for a minute that the right would have peacefully rolled over for her like the Democrats are doing for Donald Trump's regime, I have a lovely bridge to sell you.

She was caught in a horrible trap: be screamed at if she did anything in public, no matter the outcome, or to be screamed at for appearing to be doing nothing. (Somehow I doubt Secretary Clinton's campaign and entire legal team has been vacationing in the Bahamas since Election Day.) The Clinton campaign announced that it would be supporting Stein's recount, and their reward for it was a vicious swipe from Stein, a small taste of what they would have received if they'd tried to drive an election challenge.

Some are crying hypocrisy: When Donald Trump indicated that he wouldn't accept the results of the election unless he was the winner, people were rightly both concerned and furious. Evidently Secretary Clinton should abandon a contest of the election results because her campaign cried foul about Trump's actions. It's a neat bit of rhetorical dancing on the part of the right, but it doesn't hold up.

First of all, Governor Pat McCrory in North Carolina is involved in a vigorous challenge of the gubernatorial result in that state, after losing by a very slim margin. While there's no evidence to support claims of wrongdoing, he's relying on conservative myths about voter fraud to attempt, effectively, to steal the election — but Republicans aren't rushing to condemn him for refusing to accept the results of the election and move on. What's good for the goose is good for the gander: If it's not appropriate to contest election results, Governor McCrory shouldn't be doing it.

Second of all, there are numerous clear indicators that something went wrong in this election, aside from the obvious issues of interference by a foreign government and voter suppression. Security professionals have cautioned that something seems like it might be awry — and that's why they have called for an audit. Their goal, and for that matter Stein's stated objective, isn't to challenge the results with an eye to making sure the right candidate wins, but to challenge the results with an eye to making sure the right candidate won.

Secretary Clinton conceded on election night because all of the evidence suggested that given the number of states called and electoral college math, he has pretty clearly won the election. She also conceded because she, like President Obama, felt that a drawn out, contested election could endanger the country, and she wanted to move forward. But as more evidence emerges that things are perhaps not quite right, and as she overtakes Trump in the popular vote by millions of votes, and as margins remain persistently small in states that Trump barely squeaked by in, it's reasonable to ask for a time out.

This is not the first time in recent memory, after all, that a Republican has won the electoral college but not the popular vote in circumstances that were pretty sketchy. And after his Democratic opponent pursued a reasonable course of options to attempt to verify the election result, he ultimately conceded. Maybe he shouldn't have — maybe he should have kept pushing — but Vice-President Al Gore clearly felt that the risks weren't worth the potential rewards. Maybe he was wrong.

Secretary Clinton would definitely be wrong if she didn't pursue reasonable options to validate the election results, because the danger presented by the president-elect is considerable. Failing to explore the vote would certainly infuriate an already enraged Democratic base (as would pandering to racists, which seems to be an emerging strategy in the wake of the failure of the Clinton campaign). More importantly, though, it could also mean validating dangerous practices that could grow entrenched over the next two years, effectively ensuring that the right remains in power forever.

This is how autocracies are born — with a slow but steady chipping away until a country reaches the point where it is so unremarkable and normal that extremists can emerge from the shadows, walk in the corridors of power, and make the laws that govern our lives. Perhaps Donald Trump really did win the election under the current framework of how we run elections, through voter suppression laws and the electoral college. If he did, the country should wake up to the fact that it needs to aggressively defend voting rights and dismantle the electoral college. And if he didn't, we deserve to know it.