OK, let’s talk about recounts

Most of us have moved on, but low-level legal and public relations warfare continues in the United States over the results of its presidential election, won two and a half weeks ago by Democrat Joe Biden.

Republican incumbent Donald Trump has refused to acknowledge the result and maintains, in a fashion increasingly divorced from reality, that he is the victim of electoral fraud. The Republican Party’s legal advisers have apparently been sidelined due to insufficient loyalty to Trump, whose case is now mostly in the hands of his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani – a conspirator in the Ukrainian shakedown that led to Trump’s impeachment earlier this year.

Giuliani on Friday held a press conference in which, as Politico’s reporters put it, he “pushed an alternate political reality” in which votes had been changed or stolen by a giant conspiracy of authorities in Democrat-controlled cities. Quite apart from the total lack of evidence, this theory ignores the basic electoral reality that Biden won primarily by improving his performance in the suburbs, where the officials are mostly Republicans.

While Giuliani stands at the more unhinged end of the spectrum, most senior Republicans are playing the same double game to a greater or lesser degree. They know perfectly well that Trump has lost the election. Rather than genuine attempts to overturn the result, their actions are theatre designed for two purposes: firstly to placate the president and his followers, and second to delegitimise the Biden presidency in advance, crippling its ability to implement its agenda.

Meanwhile the process of finalising and certifying results continues. Lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign to try to halt it have been uniformly unsuccessful. In the most recent case, a federal judge in Pennsylvania at the weekend threw out the Trump campaign’s challenge to certification in that state, saying it involved “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations … unsupported by evidence.”

Giuliani and the rest have been driven to such desperate measures by the impossibility of overturning the result by any more ordinary means. As we noted last week, Biden’s margin in the electoral college depends on narrow wins in three states – Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin. All three results are very close, but not close enough for there to be any likelihood of them changing.

Compare, again, the notorious Florida result of 2000. It was eventually certified (after the Supreme Court had prevented a recount) as a Republican victory by 537 votes; subsequent unofficial analysis of the ballots revealed that a full recount would have produced a Democrat victory (and therefore made Al Gore president) by an even narrower margin.

There is nothing like that this year. In a large state, a recount can easily produce a change of several hundred votes, but not several thousand. Yet Trump would need to achieve that in not just one state, but three. In Arizona, the two candidates are separated by about 10,500 votes or 0.31 percentage points; in Georgia, by about 12,700 votes or 0.26 points; and in Wisconsin by about 21,000 votes or 0.65 points.

(Note that you need both the absolute number and the percentage to decide if it’s worth conducting a recount; the probability of errors increases with number of votes, but not proportionally. If there are ten thousand votes, a margin of 0.5 points is worth recounting but a margin of 500 votes isn’t. If there are ten million votes, it’s the other way around.)

So realistically, the only way any of those three results could change would be as the result of some huge, systematic error, and it is simply inconceivable that this could happen without evidence of it having already surfaced. There’s nothing improper in the Trump campaign requesting recounts (which they should pay for – they’re expensive), but this is well beyond the territory where routine errors are going to matter.

The Georgia result has already been recounted once, although it’s officially called an “audit”, not a recount. (It was done by the state of its own motion, not at the request of one of the candidates.) It revealed that the first count wasn’t very good: a lot of mistakes were found, some of them quite large. In the worst, 2,464 extra votes were discovered in Floyd county; the official responsible has since been sacked. Eight other counties saw their margins change by more than a hundred votes.

But the partisan effect of the errors was not very great. Trump recorded a net gain of 1,274 votes, about a tenth of what he would have needed to change the result. His campaign has said it will seek a fresh recount this week, but that is even less likely to change anything. A recount is also under way in two counties in Wisconsin: there too the Republican strategy seems to be more focused on creating an atmosphere of doubt than on any realistic hope of the votes going their way.

If this is a coup attempt, it’s an utterly incompetent one. As Jonathan Chait puts it, “Trump failed to come up with a theory for disqualifying crucial states in time, settled on one so silly many Republicans can’t convince themselves of its validity, and failed to lay the groundwork to overrule the election.” But Trumpian incompetence is hardly a new story.

2 thoughts on “OK, let’s talk about recounts

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