What you need to know about Wisconsin's recount, and why it's unlikely to change a thing

"This is certainly not Bush v. Gore," a Wisconsin elections official said Monday.

Well, what is it? 

The state is initiating the first significant candidate-driven recount in a presidential election since the 2000 ordeal in Florida between then-Vice President Al Gore and eventual President George W. Bush.

This time, though, Donald Trump is certain to remain president-elect after Wisconsin’s nearly 3 million ballots are re-tabulated. But the fight here and potentially in other states has given third-party candidates new rationale for seeking public attention for their causes, and it has given Trump fresh ammunition to trash his opponents — as well as, bafflingly, the political process in which he just secured the presidency.

Here is a look at the issues involved in the Badger State and elsewhere as the seemingly unending 2016 presidential election seeps into overtime.

Why is Wisconsin heading toward a recount?

In requesting a recount Friday, just ahead of a deadline to do so, Green Party candidate Jill Stein cited “well-documented and conclusive evidence of foreign interference” in the presidential race, as well as “irregularities observed in Wisconsin.” Wisconsin was one of Trump’s narrowest wins, by about 22,000 votes. 

Why is Jill Stein the one seeking the recount?

An excellent question. Wisconsin has no threshold for triggering an automatic recount, leaving it up to individual candidates to request, and pay for, any re-tallying of the votes. Stein received 31,006 votes in the state, about 1% of the total, giving her the standing to seek a recount even though she’s unlikely to benefit from a potential change in result.

Another candidate, Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente, applied for the recount ahead of Stein, part of what he called an effort to “bring the weaknesses of our electoral system to the attention of every citizen.” De La Fuente received just 1,514 votes in Wisconsin.

This is as much about getting their names in the news as it is about election integrity. For Stein, the recount effort also helped raise funds — which she sought in connection with the recount, but which her campaign would not guarantee would be spent exclusively on recount efforts.

Stein’s petition was also prompted by a report on findings by J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan. He questioned whether Hillary Clinton’s poor performance in some counties were tied to the use of electronic voting machines that could have been tampered with. Stein included the post as “exhibit one” for her petition, even as Halderman clarified the interpretation of his analysis.

But what some saw as potential anomalies are easily explained by demography, separate analyses have said: The counties that use paper ballots tended to be urban, more Democratic-leaning areas where Clinton performed best. 

Why does it cost so much?

The federal deadline to complete the recount is Dec. 13, and county officials may need to work evenings and weekends to meet it, according to state elections overseers. Wisconsin’s last statewide recount, a 2011 state Supreme Court race, cost $520,000 to examine about half as many ballots, according to an Associated Press survey of county clerks. 

Candidates can challenge results of the recount in circuit court within five days of the recount being completed.

Stein’s public campaign for recounts led her to raise $6.5 million through an initial fundraising drive, toward a goal of $7 million she said was needed to cover costs. After her call for a recount received an enthusiastic response, she repeatedly increased the amount of money she said she needed.

Where does Hillary Clinton fit in to all this?

Clinton’s team did its due diligence in Wisconsin and other states and found no “actionable evidence” of vote manipulation, and no state where a recount or challenge was merited, said Marc Elias, a lawyer for her campaign. But once Stein initiated the recount, the Clinton campaign wanted to ensure it was represented.

That participation has been exaggerated and misconstrued by some to say Clinton is herself challenging the result. Wisconsin election officials said Monday that Clinton’s campaign would not bear any costs for the recount, but that it — like Trump’s campaign — was eligible to observe the process.

And yes, Clinton, her campaign, Democrats, even some Republicans and many independent and outside voices were critical of Trump’s refusal during one of the televised debates to say he would honor the result of the election. He later clarified to say that he reserved the right to challenge any questionable result if he suspected potential fraud. That’s quite different, both in spirit and in literal terms, to this process. In fact it is Trump, not Stein nor Clinton, falsely alleging a widespread effort to manufacture illegal votes.

Where else might we see recounts?

Pennsylvania and Michigan are two other closely contested states where Stein is seeking recounts. They, along with Wisconsin, made up the Clinton firewall that Trump successfully breached to win.

It’s worth pointing out that elections in this country are not conducted by a single entity. All 50 states have their own processes for conducting elections for presidential electors, and their own rules for certifying, auditing and potentially recounting results. And some states allow counties and municipalities leeway to act independently of one another, on issues such as voting equipment, for instance. The Wisconsin Elections Commission calls its state the most decentralized in the nation, with primary authority for the recount at the county level with state oversight.

This uneven process virtually guarantees it is impossible to conduct widespread fraud that would turn an election.

Stein’s campaign said Monday that it was successful in initiating recount requests in 100 voting precincts in Pennsylvania, where Trump won by more than 68,000 votes. But there are more than 9,000 precincts statewide, so Stein is far short of what she needs to trigger a statewide recount.

A recount in Pennsylvania is especially unlikely to yield a substantially different result, given that it is one of just a dozen states where there is no paper record to review.

Elections officials in Michigan, where Trump won by more than 11,000 votes, certified results Monday, triggering a deadline for candidates to request a recount within 48 hours. Stein’s campaign said it will request a recount Wednesday that’s done by hand.

What are the chances this changes the election results?

Slim to none, with none the leader in the clubhouse. Citing data compiled by nonprofit FairVote of the 27 statewide general election recounts in the last 16 years, FiveThirtyEight found that the average change in margin was just 282 votes. The biggest was in the highest-profile case: Florida’s presidential vote in 2000, when Al Gore gained 1,247 votes to close to within 537 votes behind George W. Bush, out of more than 5.9 million cast. Still, he didn’t win the state, or the election.

Just three states — New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Michigan — had final margins of less than 1 percentage point in the 2016 election. In terms of raw votes, the closest outcome of the roughly dozen battleground states was New Hampshire, where Clinton won victory by just 2,736 votes. But the Nov. 14 deadline for any candidate to apply for a recount, as well as a Nov. 18 deadline for voters to petition the state for one, came and went.

“I've never seen a recount overturn margins as large as the ones we're dealing with here,” said David Wasserman, an elections analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report who is closely monitoring the state-by-state electoral tallies.

You’re kidding.

Very little of this is funny.

So why do we care?

In part because we’re in the unique situation in which the president-elect, the winner of the election, is the one most publicly raising questions about the integrity of the outcome.

Trump attacked Stein for initiating the recount, then went on to say he would have won in the national popular vote as well as the electoral college had millions of ineligible votes not been cast, a false claim for which his own campaign has offered no definitive evidence.

The most likely source for Trump was hardly a credible one: a report without evidence cited by the fringe website InfoWars.com claiming to have verified that more than 3 million votes were cast by noncitizens. “Virtually all of the votes cast by 3 million illegal immigrants are likely to have been for Hillary Clinton, meaning Trump might have won the popular vote when this number is taken into account,” the site claimed.

As the Los Angeles Times reported just before the election, voter fraud — in which a person casts a ballot despite knowingly being ineligible to vote — is “extraordinarily rare,” according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. The 2007 study examined elections where wrongdoing was alleged and found the rate of substantiated instances of fraud ranged between 0.00004% and 0.0009%.

Vote tallying is ongoing — mostly in California — and Clinton is likely to win the popular vote by about 2.5 million votes.

Who is Trump talking about when he claims incorrectly that millions voted illegally?

He didn’t specify, but he may have been talking about people who vote even though they are not citizens, a warning he repeated during the campaign. “They are letting people pour into the country so they can go ahead and vote,” he said in October, again without evidence. By law, all voters in national elections are supposed to be U.S. citizens. Even legal immigrants may not vote until they become naturalized.

Can noncitizens register to vote?

It’s possible, though not legal. When people register, they must check a box swearing that they are citizens. But in most places, the question is handled on the honor system. Election administrators usually verify identity, by checking drivers’ license or Social Security records. But under federal rules, they may not ask for proof of citizenship, like a birth certificate or a passport.

Do they actually vote?

It has happened, though not in any meaningful fashion in terms of election results. A conservative legal foundation that has pushed for citizenship checks has obtained lists of people purged from the voting rolls for not being citizens. In Virginia, more than 1,000 people have been removed since 2011 in eight counties that provided records. In Philadelphia, election administrators purged 86 noncitizen voters over three years; 40 had voted at least once. Election supervisors say most of these cases were mistakes made by people who thought they could vote, not cases of intent to fraudulently vote.

What’s the evidence that millions of people are voting illegally?

There is none. Trump has mentioned a statistical analysis by three Virginia academics that estimated that more than 6% of noncitizens cast illegal votes in 2008. But that study was attacked by other experts, who said that the study made too much of a few people who said they were noncitizens and might have given incorrect answers to a survey.

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