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Election Recounts Won't Change Result, But Highlight Debate on Election Administration

Washington, D.C. – With news that recounts of presidential election vote totals have either been requested or are under consideration in three states, John Fortier and Matthew Weil, director and associate director, respectively, of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project, today issued the following statement:

“More than 134 million votes were cast in this year’s presidential contest. While some states continue to count votes and certify vote totals, other states have received requests to recount the vote in their jurisdictions.

“The winner of the presidential election has been clear since the early morning hours of November 9, and subsequent counting of ballots, challenges, recounts, and opinions about the health of our voting system will not change the result. The margins for President-elect Donald Trump in the three states where recounts may occur are all larger than any recount would reasonably overturn.

“Since the reporting of the initial vote counts, we have seen the total number of votes cast in the election and the national popular vote margin for Secretary Hillary Clinton grow. This is not surprising; in fact, it was expected. Noted election scholars Edward Foley and Charles Stewart have documented that over the last several elections we have seen a rising total vote count with a ‘blue shift’ in the popular vote margin.

“The changes in the vote totals since the initial reporting stem from two major factors: absentee ballots and provisional ballots.

The late-counted votes in California and in other states are not evidence of election irregularities, but of policy decisions by these states.

“First, some states have large numbers of absentee ballots and allow them to be turned in or post marked by Election Day, so they spend many days counting these late-arriving ballots. Second, since the 2000 election, the United States has seen a great increase in provisional ballots—ballots that are cast if a voter has a problem related to voting. Often these problems relate to the voter’s registration status or location. These ballots are sealed in envelopes, and the individual cases of the voter’s circumstances are investigated to determine whether or not the ballot should be accepted. These two categories of votes, late-arriving mail ballots and provisional ballots and the long time it takes to count them, explain the bulk of the reason that the vote totals reported on Election Day have continued to grow.

“More specifically, these phenomena are especially prevalent in our largest state: California. And as this large state has leaned strongly Democratic, it is not a surprise that the votes counted from California will increase Clinton’s national vote total more than President-elect Trump’s. As of 5 a.m. on the day after Election Day, reports of the vote in California showed about 8 million votes cast with a 2 million vote margin for Clinton. Today, as we near the conclusion of the initial vote count in California, the totals are over 13 million votes cast with a 4 million vote margin in favor of Clinton.

“The late-counted votes in California and in other states are not evidence of election irregularities, but of policy decisions by these states to allow vote-by mail ballots to be postmarked by Election Day and generous provisional ballot policies that count ballots cast in incorrect precincts. There is plenty of room for post-election debates about the wisdom of these policies, but they do not indicate election irregularities.

“Similarly, the recounts in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, accusations of illegal voting, worries about foreign hacking, debates about the merits of the Electoral College all may raise legitimate issues about the integrity and accessibility of our election system. These issues will be part of an important conversation after the election about improving the voting experience. But none will alter the outcome of our election.

“In the spirit of the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, we look forward to working on improving election administration for future elections.”

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