Donald Trump is wrong about a lot of stuff. But there is nothing that the president is more consistently wrong about than counting votes.
Since he began campaigning for the presidency in 2015, Trump has positioned himself as a win-at-any-cost politician who delights in disregarding the minutia of electoral democracy. He invites his followers to do the same. Trump reimagines results all the time. Famously, he claimed he won a “massive landslide victory” in the 2016 election where he actually finished 2.9 million votes behind Democrat Hillary Clinton. To protect his fragile ego, the president fosters fantasies about “voter fraud.”
The president is up to his old tricks as he lambastes the officials who are counting and recounting votes in the Florida Senate race between incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Rick Scott. That contest is in “too-close-to-call” limbo, with Scott leading by about 12,500 votes out of 8.2 million cast. The margin is just 0.15 percent. So, now, amid a flurry of confusing and contradictory reports of uncounted and miscounted votes across Florida—a state with a long history of stumbles when it comes to organizing fair and functional elections—county officials are conducting a machine recount in the Senate race.
Recounts are also proceeding in the governor’s race, where Republican Ron DeSantis has a 33,684-vote lead over Democrat Andrew Gillum, and in the contest for state secretary of agriculture, where Democrat Nikki Fried leads Republican Matt Caldwell by 5,326 votes.
The process is demanding, as the deadline for reviewing all three races is Thursday. Trump is making things harder by promoting unsubstantiated claims about fraud and portraying the process as chaotically beyond repair. The president’s solution? Repeat the folly of the 2000 Bush v. Gore Florida recount fight and simply declare the Republican the winner.
Last week he began tweeting about a “big corruption scandal having to do with Election Fraud in #Broward and Palm Beach,” “Election Theft in Broward and Palm Beach Counties” and the prospect that Democrats might try to “falsify a victory!” But, on Monday, Trump went off the deep end and demanded that the count be abandoned.
“The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged,” the president claimed. “An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”
That’s just wrong, on two levels. The first is factual. There is no evidence of fraud. CNN points out that “the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it was not investigating anything related to the election after the Florida Department of State said there were no allegations of criminal activity.” On Monday, Broward County Circuit Judge Jack Tuter rejected Scott’s incendiary demand that voting machines be impounded, while urging all sides to “tamp down the rhetoric.”
The second is structural. When Trump creates confusion about recounts, and seeks to discredit or derail them, he attacks the very underpinnings of a functioning democracy. Most of us are familiar with the meltdown that occurred in Florida after the 2000 election, when Republican state officials deliberately constrained and mangled a recount process and then the US Supreme Court shut things down before the process was complete.
The 2000 race between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush finished horribly because partisans refused to respect recounts. But it is notable that the 2000 contest was not the closest presidential election in modern American history. That was the 1960 contest between Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon. And it produced a much better example of how recounts can and should be pursued.
The 1960 popular vote split almost evenly; Kennedy won 49.72 percent to 49.55 for Nixon, with the Democrat leading the Republican by just 112,827 votes nationally. But that wasn’t the real measure of the closeness of the 1960 contest. Ten states were decided by 2 percent of the vote or less, and eight of those states favored Kennedy. Kennedy won Hawaii by 115 votes, Alaska by 846 votes, New Mexico by 2,294 votes, Delaware by 3,217, Illinois by less than 9,000 votes, Missouri by barely 10,000 votes. In New Jersey, Kennedy prevailed by a mere 50-49 margin; in Texas, it was 51-49.
A shift toward Nixon in any of several combinations of states could have erased Kennedy’s Electoral College advantage, as the distribution gave him just 34 more electoral votes than he needed to prevail. (Ironically, that was the advantage Trump had when razor-thin margins in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania gave him his 2016 Electoral College victory.)
Nixon refused to formally pursue recounts in 1960—fearing, as he later wrote, that “Charges of ‘sore loser’ would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career.” But Republican National Committee Chairman Thruston Morton kept raising concerns about irregularities in Illinois and Texas. Morton argued that many of the states’ results were close enough to merit a review of voting that might yet swing the election to Nixon. Other members of Nixon’s inner circle also encouraged inquiries and recounts in close to a dozen states. Trusted Republicans were sent to conduct “field checks” in states where the results were close, legal challenges were mounted, and several recounts took place.
As is usually the case with reviews and recounts, not much changed in the challenger’s favor. Indeed, a recount in Hawaii tipped the state from Nixon column to Kennedy’s. So be it. Morton and those who raised objections and challenges did the right thing.
When elections produce a close or controversial result, it is appropriate for candidates who are on the losing end of the count to ask questions and to pursue remedies. No one expects the candidates who are ahead on election night to object.
It falls to candidates who hold out small hope for a reversal of fortune (or, in some rare cases, no hope at all) to demand that every vote be counted and counted accurately. Gillum embraced this principle as the margin in the gubernatorial race narrowed. Four days after the election, he announced: “I am replacing my earlier concession with an unapologetic and uncompromised call to count every vote.”
This really is what democracy looks like.
Unfortunately, in an age of hyperpartisan spin and know-nothing media, there is a tendency to see demands for recounts as the burdensome expressions of sore losers. Sometimes they are that. But for those of us who concern ourselves with the functioning of the elections that confer authority on executives and legislators, recounts are understood as fundamental underpinnings of democracy. They only rarely overturn the results that were anticipated on election night. But even when they simply confirm initial impressions, recounts give us all greater confidence in systems that can only serve their purpose if citizens see those systems as fair and functional.
(John Nichols is the author of a detailed examination of the 2000 recount in Florida: Jews for Buchanan: Did You Hear the One About the Theft of the American Presidency? It was published by The New Press.)