The election didn’t end on 8 November, it just morphed into a crisis whose resolution is not in sight. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was impacted by an October surprise delivered by a partisan FBI, but November was not short on surprises, and there may yet be one in December. A little more than a week ago, while people were wondering what it would take to get the Clinton campaign to pursue a recount, Jill Stein’s campaign amazed everyone by taking on the job. Exuberance for the idea immediately inspired small donors to contribute $6.5m in about 48 hours. Stein launched the recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania at the behest of election experts John Bonifaz and J Alex Halderman, who said the irregularities they saw merited further investigation. Those errors include discrepancies in Donald Trump’s favor between the usually reliable exit polls and the votes in several swing states, beyond what some experts consider the margin of error and other anomalies. One they noted was that in Wisconsin, Clinton received 7% fewer votes in counties with electronic voting machines than in counties that have paper ballots. In Michigan, more than 80,000 ballots were said to be blank where the votes for president would be marked, twice the number left blank in the previous election, and several times the margin between the two candidates.
There were also numerous reports of foreign intervention into state voting systems and other forms of election interference, including the news that Obama reportedly called Putin on the “nuclear phone” to tell Russia to stop meddling. This astonishing item has had no apparent followup, beyond Senator Lindsey Graham demanding an investigation and the seven Democratic members of the Senate intelligence committee urging the White House to release its classified information on the subject. Which is to say, we don’t know what happened in our election, and in a democracy we really should.
All this serves as a reminder that the United States’ voting system is an incoherent patchwork of systems of varying degrees of reliability, many with easily hackable machines, all managed by local election officials of varying levels of probity and competence on computers with no notable security. In Pennsylvania, the gap between Clinton’s and Trump’s votes narrowed dramatically even before the recount, as officials got around to actually counting all the ballots (according to Decision Desk HQ, on the day after the election Trump was reported to be ahead in Pennsylvania by 126,091 votes, but that lead had narrowed to 44,321 this week, after officials actually counted a lot of the ballots). In Michigan, the difference between the two candidates is a little more than 10,000 votes; in Wisconsin, around 20,000.
There are grounds to wonder whether Trump won those swing states and whether the results are trustworthy. If the recount reveals he didn’t – well, the biggest upset in American political history could be around the corner. People assert it’s unlikely, but things we call unlikely happen routinely, which we forget, because after the Berlin Wall falls or some planes crash into a couple of skyscrapers, it all looks perfectly likely in hindsight.