Here at FiveThirtyEight, we’ve been skeptical of claims of irregularities in the presidential election. As we pointed out last week, there are no obvious statistical anomalies in the results in swing states based on the type of voting technology that each county employed. Instead, demographic differences, particularly the education levels of voters, explain the shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016 fairly well. But that doesn’t mean I take some sort of philosophical stance against a recount or an audit of elections returns, or that other people at FiveThirtyEight do. Such efforts might make sense, with a couple of provisos. The first proviso: Let’s not call it a “recount,” because that’s not really what it is. It’s not as though merely counting the ballots a second or third time is likely to change the results enough to overturn the outcome in three states. An apparent win by a few dozen or a few hundred votes might be reversed by an ordinary recount. But Donald Trump’s margins, as of this writing, are roughly 11,000 votes in Michigan, 23,000 votes in Wisconsin and 68,000 votes in Pennsylvania. There’s no precedent for a recount overturning margins like those or anything close to them. Instead, the question is whether there was a massive, systematic effort to manipulate the results of the election.
So what we’re talking about is more like an audit or an investigation. An investigation that would look for signs of deliberate and widespread fraud, such as voting machines’ having been hacked, whole batches of ballots’ intentionally having been disregarded, illegal coordination between elections officials and the campaigns, and so on. Such findings would probably depend on physical evidence as much or more than they do statistical evidence. In that sense, there’s no particular reason to confine the investigation to Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania, the states that Hillary Clinton lost (somewhat) narrowly. If the idea is to identify some sort of smoking gun indicating massive fraud perpetrated by the Trump campaign — or by the Clinton campaign, or by the Russian government — it might be in a state Clinton won, such as New Hampshire or Minnesota. Or for that matter, it might be in a state Trump won fairly easily, like Ohio or Iowa.