Max Lubell: The case against an election recount

Sunday, December 4, 2016 - 11:32am

The Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein filed for a recount in Pennsylvania, a state Hillary Clinton lost — which helped pave the way for Donald Trump’s election win. Imagine going back in time two months and telling yourself that sentence was true. I can't fathom how that conversation would go, but today that is our reality. Auditing the vote translates into voter suppression policies and rhetoric, and searching for flaws in the electoral system does not have tangible benefits that outweigh this. However, because Stein called for the recount without Clinton’s consent, Clinton should play a role in the recount. 

Stein also recently filed for a recount in Michigan. The national call for it came after cybersecurity threats were identified by groups of computer scientists, including the director of the University of Michigan Center for Computer Security and Society, J. Alex Halderman. According to Halderman, a state voting infrastructure hack is a possibility, primarily in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. A hack in Michigan is feasible, though the risk seems to be lower due to the use of paper ballots. The probability of the cybersecurity threat is amplified by the Russian hacks of John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee this year, which identified a clear intent by a foreign actor to interfere with the election.

A recount would display any violation of the electoral process, but it will also cause voter suppression. The Democratic Party spent almost the entire length of the Clinton campaign defending the voting system. That defense was critical to stopping voter suppression, which is of increasing concern.

This year was the first general election after a 2013 ruling that softened protections under the Voting Rights Act, resulting in 14 states imposing new voting restrictions. That denies the right to vote to thousands of Americans, usually low-income and non-white individuals, from the electoral process. There is no rebutting that voter suppression impacts minority voters, as courts, numerous studies and Republican politicians have admitted to the effects of restrictions. Now, after months of defending the security of the voting system, Clinton is calling it into question. That poses a large problem.

For conservative politicians, voting security does not mean protection from cyber attacks. Rather, it translates into voter suppression through strict voting ID laws, felon disenfranchisement, mail-in ballot restrictions and early voting cutbacks. The Democratic Party needs to be working to stop suppression, and calling the integrity of the voting system into question does not do that. The best evidence for the jump between representing a vulnerable voting system and voter suppression comes from President-elect Trump himself. In response to the call for a recount, Trump falsely claimed he would have won the popular vote if it was not for millions of illegal votes. The potential threat of illegal votes is a primary driver of voter suppression policies.

The risk of voter suppression is large enough to outweigh the benefits of calling for a recount. Even Halderman admits that the probability of a hack is quite low. That low probability is outweighed by the high chances of voter suppression. I could be swayed to think otherwise if I heard a more compelling justification for a recount. A Michigan recount will not win Clinton the vote, but this doesn’t seem to be the main goal of most recount proponents. Rather, the main benefit to citizens of Michigan seems to be only for those who want to verify that there was not a hack. “Just trying to be sure” is not a valid enough benefit to risk justifying voter suppression in tons of states. Democrats should be building public confidence in elections by pushing for policies that protect voter rights, not by pushing for an audit.

The best case for a recount I have seen comes from a Vox editorial that argues the reverse of my argument, that normalizing recounts would increase public confidence in elections. The piece argues that if recounts always happened then it “won’t give credence to conspiracy theorists, and it will bolster rather than undermine public confidence.” That said, think of all the damage that normalized recounts could do.

Take, for example, the governor’s race in North Carolina, which still has not been officially called. Democratic nominee Attorney General Roy Cooper has unofficially received 9,700 more ballots than incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. McCrory has refused to concede the election in an attempt to hold onto his governor seat. Furthermore, McCrory called for a recount in several counties with no evidence of foul play. McCrory has brought the efficacy of North Carolina’s election into play, and there will be negative impacts.

The North Carolina recount is clearly a last-ditch attempt to hold onto power by a politician who is basing his strategy in allegations. However, breaking down the public confidence of the North Carolina election is going to have a negative consequence: voter suppression. One justification for the North Carolina recount has come after widespread claims of voter fraud from McCrory’s campaign. There is no evidence for this accusation, but it manifests itself in voter suppression policy. The incumbent’s campaign is using voter fraud as a basis for a lawsuit to not count same-day registration ballots in the election.  

North Carolina displays what happens when claims for recounts go haywire. Politicians refusing to concede elections, false evidence of voter fraud and voter suppression come as the result of dismantling public confidence in the electoral process. Now imagine if recounts were a norm and happened all the time. The chances that these recounts would resemble North Carolina’s would increase exponentially.

However, I will not condemn Clinton for participating in the recount. Stein calling for the audit meant that a recount was going to happen with or without Clinton, making any risk of dismantling public confidence in the electoral process inevitable. Therefore, Clinton is not directly at fault for any voter suppression that the recount creates. It is also difficult to blame a politician who simply wishes to ensure an inescapable recount was going to occur properly. While Clinton may not be directly to blame, this problem highlights a necessity for policy that fights back against voter suppression. The United States needs public confidence in elections, and the best way to accomplish this is by increasing the protections originally granted by the Voting Rights Act.

Max Lubell can be reached at mlubell@umich.edu