For a nation that declared Donald Trump its president-elect some 26 days ago, there sure is a heck of a lot of interest in counting the votes all over again. When Green Party candidate Jill Stein -- after getting a whopping 1 percent of the national popular vote -- asked voters to pay for recounts in the three states (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan) that so narrowly swung the election to Trump, she raised millions of dollars in a matter of hours.
Since then, stories on Stein's quixotic efforts have frequently led the national broadcasts and the local news here in Philadelphia. That's because the effort has tapped into both the disbelief of half of Americans that Trump actually won and their widespread fears of election hacking, especially by Russia.
And yet there's a lot of reasons not to like the recount. Reason No. 1 is arguably Stein herself, who -- unlike Hillary Clinton, the candidate who would actually benefit if the recount gambit worked -- has never been described as "likable enough." Even though as a progressive guy I philosophically agree with many of Stein's positions, I also find her to be like a Saturday Night Live parody of a 21st Century rich, wine-swilling liberal -- tweeting about Harambe, partying it up with Putin in Red Square, and directing all her venom toward Clinton, so mindless about the fundamental threat to democracy posed by Trump. It's no wonder that so many critics question where the $7 million or so she raised for the recount will actually wind up.
Yet there's a bigger problem with the recount than Stein. Despite all the understandable pre-election fears about Russian hacking (more on that in a minute), there's little about the actual November 8 results that leaps out as a sign that the hacking actually took place. Yes, the polls in some states were way off (blame massive refusal rates and cell phones, not any conspiracy) and there like one Wisconsin county where the initial numbers didn't add up (though there seems to be an explanation). But there's strong evidence that what appeared to happen on Election Day -- blue-collar types who haven't voted in years or flipped from Obama to Trump coming out for the GOP upstart, plus lack of enthusiasm for Clinton among urban non-whites, which trumped a Hillary surge in affluent suburbs -- actually happened.
This is a painful thing for more than 65 million of us to admit, but here goes: Donald Trump won the Electoral College.
(Deep breath). Having said that, this partial recount of the 2016 results is a necessary and important thing. It absolutely needs to be done and done properly -- as a down payment on future balloting that will make America's elections great again. In fact, I even hold my nose and applaud Jill Stein for pursuing this. Here's why:
Confidence in the American political process is completely shot. Conservatives believe that millions of illegal votes were cast, either by undocumented immigrants or by dead people or through ACORN (which hasn't existed since 2010, but I digress...). Liberals believe the only way that Trump could have won was through hacking straight out of the Kremlin. The truth is out there. And in a time of heightened concern that Trump's authoritarian tendencies have put the American Experiment at risk, the truth about what really happened inside our voting booths is more essential than ever.
You can date this back to 2000. The Bush-Gore deadlock and the fiasco of the Florida recount exposed flaws in the way that Americans vote that got a lot of attention (the infamous butterfly ballot) and that didn't get enough attention (Florida's life voting ban on felons, a policy that exists in some other states but in hardly any other civilized nations). To rectify some of that, Congress passed an election reform bill and millions were spent on new electronic voting systems -- which only created new problems. In 2004, exit polls predicting that John Kerry had won the Electoral College were undone by the actual vote tally, spreading enough doubt that a challenge was lodged on the Senate floor.
Fast forward to 2016. Instead of addressing growing concerns that electronic results could be hacked and elections stolen, the (bleep) got real. In August, U.S. government officials, albeit under the (regrettable) cloak of anonymity, charged that Russian hackers had breached election data bases in Illinois and in Arizona. This came as the group Wikileaks -- again, some suspect, in concert with Russian hackers -- released a flood of emails, some politically damaging, from high-ranking Democratic officials in what appeared to be an effort by a foreign power to tilt the election toward Trump. If Russia was willing to use dirty tricks and hacking to aid Trump during the campaign, then why not hack the actual results? That hopefully didn't happen, but just sowing these doubts has already accomplished a broader Vladimir Putin goal of disrupting faith in Western democracy.
Thus, a recount to the fullest extent possible in Wisconsin, Michigan and here in Pennsylvania is the first baby step toward restoring faith in our democratic systems. By 2020 or even the congressional elections of 2018, much more should be done.
1) To discourage hacking and other forms of election fraud, strategic audits and recounts should be a matter of course -- just like the books at publicly traded companies or millions of individual tax returns are routinely audited -- to ensure the integrity of the vote. What we have now is exactly the opposite, a patchwork of often arcane laws, administered by highly partisan judges, that tend to prevent recounts -- and thwart accountability. That needs to change.
2) To make these recounts and audits effective in the age of widespread hacking, every American should cast his or her vote on a paper ballot. Too many of the electronic voting systems in place today leave zero paper trail, which makes them vulnerable to hacking efforts that would be nearly impossible to detect. The only guarantee of integrity in the 21st Century will be going back to the future of tamper-proof paper.
3) There's a third issue, and it may seem counter-intuitive to some folks -- but America needs to do so much more to make it easier for people to vote. In the 2016 election, there's strong evidence that restrictive voter ID laws in North Carolina and Wisconsin turned away tens of thousands of voters -- and thus flipped the critical states to Trump. Indeed, despite the high stakes in this election, some 100 million eligible American voters stayed home. How much of that was apathy and how much is holding our election on a busy working Tuesday, restrictive laws such as voter ID, and precinct closings causing ridiculously long lines? With Republicans ruling the roost in D.C. and a majority of statehouses, this won't change any time soon. But think about it. The more fluctuation in how many people bother to vote, the easier for hackers to do their thing.
The kicker to all this is that even Trump himself has claimed there was widespread election fraud in 2016 -- tweeting out, falsely, without offering evidence, that millions of undocumented immigrants cast ballots. But now that a recount is potentially happening in just three of the 50 states, Trump and his allies are working hard to block it. You have to wonder what The Donald is so afraid of. As an allegedly successful businessman, the president-elect should know that a thriving concern is one where all the numbers add up. It's way past time to balance the books in this now-struggling enterprise known as American democracy.