Q&A: Presidency Expert Discusses Recount Chances, Historical Precedent

November 09, 2020

Editor’s Note: This Q&A was adapted from a post on the University of Virginia Miller Center of Public Affairs’ Election 2020 and Its Aftermath page, providing real-time analysis and context around the presidential election.


s former Vice President Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election over the weekend, incumbent President Donald Trump indicated that he planned to file several lawsuits and perhaps pursue recounts in some states.

William Antholis, director and CEO of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, takes a look at what that might mean for American political life in the next few weeks. His conclusion? While it was a hard-fought election, the numbers do not indicate that a recount would change much.

He explains more, below.

Q. What was your reaction, as you heard more about both the election results and President Trump’s plans to contest those results?

A. First, this was a truly remarkable statement about democracy. Nearly 150 million Americans voted amidst a global pandemic. Practically every state in the union expanded the options for voting to accommodate that. And, despite great fears, there was no evidence of any tampering or disruptions at polling places around the country. It was a good day for democracy.

Second, the Biden-Harris win combines continuity with change. President-elect Biden is a true Washington insider, having first run for the White House more than 30 years ago. Vice President-elect Harris is America’s first woman and first woman of color as VP.

Third, it is not that close; this does not have to be a political crisis. We have just completed a narrow, hard-fought election. Given the ongoing economic crisis and the pandemic, the country should begin the peaceful transition of power.

The chances of a recount flipping tens of thousands of votes across multiples states in Trump’s favor are outside of anything we have seen in American history. When compared with other close elections, this one is actually quite a comfortable victory for President-elect Biden. The Biden-Harris ticket has won or is significantly ahead in states worth 306 electoral votes.

Q. What would have to happen for the results to change in Trump’s favor?

A. For Trump to win, he must flip at least three of the four narrowest margins of defeat, where he either must persuade courts to disqualify tens of thousands of ballots, or have recounts overturn results in three of the four closest “tipping point” states that put Biden over the 270 threshold.

Biden’s margins of victory in the three closest tipping point states are very similar to those with which President Trump won in the 2016 election, when he garnered 306 electoral votes in a mirror image of this year’s election. For example, Biden won Wisconsin by 20,539 votes in 2020, while Trump won Wisconsin by 22,748 votes in 2016. Biden won Georgia by 10,625 votes, his narrowest margin, while Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016, his narrowest margin. Biden is currently winning Pennsylvania by 45,595, which Trump won in 2015 by 44,292.

Q. What does history tell us about past recounts?

A. Past recounts have changed hundreds of ballots, but typically not thousands. According to a study by FairVote, only four times since 2000 have recount vote swings been greater than 1,000. Two happened in 2000, when Al Gore picked up 1,247 votes in the Florida presidential race, and a statewide race in Colorado reversed 1,121 votes. Two more happened in 2018 in Florida, with swings of 1,467 and 2,567 votes. Between 2000 and 2019, the median swing was just over 200 votes – often in favor of the candidate in the lead.

The country has seen much closer elections than the current one. The two most famous “contested elections” were in 2000 and 1876. The 2020 election was not as close as either one.

“This does not have to be a political crisis. The election was not historically close. ”

- William Antholis

In the 2000 Bush-Gore race in Florida, one state alone would have decided the outcome, leading to nearly two months of recounts and court battles. By comparison, President-elect Biden’s narrowest lead is 10,625 votes in Georgia, which is more than five times larger than Bush’s initial Florida lead of 1,784.

In the 1876 election, pitting Rutherford Hayes against Samuel Tilden, narrow margins in South Carolina (889), Florida (922), Oregon (1,057) and Louisiana (4,807) led to a four-month stalemate. A special commission investigated charges of fraud or voter disenfranchisement, and ultimately declared Hayes the winner in a deeply partisan 8-7 vote.

The 20th century has seen two other elections much closer than Biden-Trump. Neither became a political crisis. In 1976, Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford by winning a single tipping point state, Ohio, by 11,116 votes, or 0.27%. Coming after the national trauma of Watergate, Gerald Ford conceded the next morning.

John Kennedy’s 1960 victory over Richard Nixon had narrow margins in Hawaii (115), Illinois (8,858), and Missouri (9,980), which all would have needed to be reversed to give Nixon the election. Nixon conceded the next morning.

Q. Does this constitute a political crisis?

A. If the 2020 election becomes a political crisis, President Trump will have created one. The only analog would be the self-created crisis of 1860. Then, Abraham Lincoln won the electoral vote and a plurality of the popular vote with no evidence of fraud or illegality. The losing side, Southern Democrats, could not accept the legitimacy of the outcome. Seven states seceded from the Union between Election Day and Inauguration Day, triggering the Civil War.

Does 2020 constitute a political crisis? Not by itself. And not yet. States will begin to certify the results. But if the president continues to question the legitimacy of the vote beyond where the facts and odds justify, it could lead to great danger for the American people.

Transitions amidst crises of any kind are inherently dangerous moments. The government’s power to defend and protect America is only as good as the public’s faith in our institutions and our leaders. For more than 200 years, we have peacefully transferred power from one president to another.

Q. What other challenges might an extended debate or litigation around the election pose?

A. A political crisis would compound the two other crises we face. Leadership on the pandemic is necessary and urgent, as daily deaths are now matching levels from April and May. The economic crisis, brought on by the pandemic, has still left 11 million people out of work. Congress and the White House failed to offer emergency relief prior to the election, as the winter and flu season approaches.

Moreover, national security transitions are complicated and dangerous. Presidential first years are notorious for foreign policy crises and mistakes. The list is long and painful – from the Bay of Pigs in 1961, to “Black Hawk Down” in 1993, to the 9/11 terror attacks. It is hard enough in normal times for a new president and a new team to prepare to confront the threats facing the nation.

This does not have to be a political crisis. The election was not historically close. President Trump can claim victory for his policy accomplishments and devote the considerable power of a post-presidency to advancing his priorities.

The alternative would be the first sitting president to challenge the legitimacy of our democracy. In short, he would be doing what the South did in 1860. We cannot repeat that mistake.

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