Should Hillary Clinton Call for a Recount?

There’s a case to be made for routine election audits—but not for spreading unsubstantiated claims or speculation about the outcome of an election.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

President-elect Donald Trump is assembling a team of advisors and cabinet officials, but calls for Hillary Clinton to demand a recount of the presidential election results have not subsided.

A New York Magazine article published on Tuesday added to that furor when it declared: “Hillary Clinton is being urged by a group of prominent computer scientists and election lawyers to call for a recount in three swing states won by Donald Trump,” asserting that the group of individuals in question “believes they’ve found persuasive evidence that results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked.”

The report has subsequently fueled speculation on social media that the vote count might have been compromised—despite the fact that the report itself emphasized that “the group has not found proof of hacking or manipulation”—as well as demands for a recount. “Please challenge the vote, Hillary. Something is not right here,” one Twitter user implored. “The most frightening thing that could happen is if we turn a blind eye and act like something isn’t completely wrong,” another user ominously tweeted.

It’s not surprising that voters desperate to stop Trump from becoming the next president could be convinced that the election was rigged. Cyber security experts have expressed confidence that Russia directed the hacks of emails from the Democratic National Committee that were subsequently published by WikiLeaks. In October, the Obama administration publicly announced that “disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like and WikiLeaks … are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts,” and added that “these thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”

Meanwhile, Clinton’s lead in the popular vote continues to grow, and recently surpassed more than two million votes, contributing to a sense among Clinton supporters that Trump’s victory is unfair and does not reflect the will of the people.

But there’s no conclusive evidence that hacking was used to manipulate the electoral vote count. That point is made in the New York report and in a follow-up Medium Post by J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan cited in the initial report. Halderman writes: “Were this year’s deviations from pre-election polls the results of a cyberattack? Probably not. I believe the most likely explanation is that the polls were systematically wrong, rather than that the election was hacked.” (Halderman also takes issue with the New York report, asserting that it “incorrectly describes the reasons manually checking ballots is an essential security safeguard.”)

Halderman goes on to argue that recounting ballots would allow for a determination as to whether there was a cyberattack, and help ensure voter confidence in the election outcome. Here’s an excerpt from his Medium post:

The only way to know whether a cyberattack changed the result is to closely examine the available physical evidence—paper ballots and voting equipment in critical states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, nobody is ever going to examine that evidence unless candidates in those states act now, in the next several days, to petition for recounts.” [...]

Examining the physical evidence in these states — even if it finds nothing amiss — will help allay doubt and give voters justified confidence that the results are accurate. It will also set a precedent for routinely examining paper ballots, which will provide an important deterrent against cyberattacks on future elections. Recounting the ballots now can only lead to strengthened electoral integrity, but the window for candidates to act is closing fast.

Over at Vox, Timothy Lee makes a similar argument for routine vote audits: “If election officials audit the results of every election, then the decision to audit a particular election won’t give credence to conspiracy theorists, and it will bolster rather than undermine public confidence.” He goes on to add: “By requesting a recount this year, Clinton would help to set a precedent that integrity should be a routine part of the election process.”

But setting aside the case for vote auditing as a general safeguard, there are important reasons to resist indulging in baseless speculation about election outcomes.

Dartmouth College Political scientist Brendan Nyhan has written about the dangers of unsubstantiated claims that elections are rigged. “Ultimately, democracies depend on losers’ acceptance of the legitimacy of the political process,” he wrote in an August 2016 post for The New York Times. “That’s why the norm of accepting election outcomes among defeated presidential candidates is so important.”

It seems unlikely that Clinton herself would call for a recount. She has already conceded the election. In her concession speech, she urged voters to accept that “Donald Trump is going to be our president.” She went on to say that “we owe him an open mind and the chance to lead,” adding: “Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power.”

But that won’t put a stop to clamor for a recount. On Wednesday, Green Party 2016 presidential candidate Jill Stein announced a fundraising drive to call for vote recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

It’s an unlikely prospect, but it represents all the hope left among those who can’t stand the thought of Donald Trump in the White House.