Could Donald Trump Reject the Election Results? Yes. Would It Do Any Good? Nope.
It was the most searing moment of the final presidential debate, plastered across newspaper front pages and dominating the cable news: Donald J. Trump’s warning that he might not accept the results of the presidential election if he felt it was “rigged” against him.
He clarified his stance on Thursday, saying in Ohio that he would not dispute a win or loss by a wide margin, “but I would also reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result.”
Should either candidate refuse to accept the outcome on Nov. 8, there are a number of ways he or she could try to change it, but they are nearly all on a state-by-state basis; the electoral process is exceptionally decentralized and lacking in uniformity.
Doing so in more than one state would be a mammoth and expensive undertaking; the 2000 recount, after all, only involved Florida.
And the loser would not be operating in a vacuum: Should Mr. Trump seek to overturn his defeat by Hillary Clinton, for example, she and a united Democratic Party could be counted on to fight tooth and nail to see that it is not reversed.
Refusing to concede
No concession — whether in a public speech or a private phone call — is formally required of the losing candidate in a presidential election; only tradition and civility demand it. But especially in a race that is not close, withholding a concession could add to the toxicity of the political environment and threaten the ability of the winner to govern.
As a practical matter, conceding removes the initial pressure for a speedy official count of the vote to be conducted, said Richard L. Hasen, a professor and election law expert at the University of California. Legally, the results tabulated and reported on election night are considered “preliminary” in most states; it can take states a few days or sometimes weeks to determine the official count of polling-place and absentee ballots.
Demanding a recount
The laws regarding recounts vary state by state. In some, when a vote falls within a certain margin, an automatic recount is set off. In Florida and Pennsylvania, that threshold is one-half of 1 percent; in Ohio, it is one-fourth of 1 percent for a statewide election. A candidate may also request a recount when the margin is larger, but in most states, the campaign requesting it must shoulder the cost of the recount.
Contesting a state’s election
Contesting a state’s election is a much more difficult undertaking than merely seeking a recount. If the losing campaign believes that the vote in one or more states was inaccurately counted, or that voter fraud may have occurred, with ineligible votes being cast or eligible votes being rejected — and in large enough numbers to swing the outcome — then it could move for a special judicial proceeding under state law, known as an election contest.
But it would need to muster persuasive evidence to halt any vote-certification process, and quickly, according to Benjamin L. Ginsberg, an election lawyer who represented George W. Bush against Al Gore in their 2000 standoff.
And it would need to contest the results in as many states as are necessary to flip the result of the election — and possibly more, to cover its bets.
Persuading the electors
Election Day is Nov. 8, but the Electoral College does not meet until December. Theoretically, the loser of the national election could try to persuade electors to ignore the wishes of their states’s voters. But this would be exceptionally difficult.
Its members are chosen in each state: If Mr. Trump carries that state, the Republican slate is elected, and if Mrs. Clinton wins, the Democratic slate is elected (except in Maine and Nebraska, which have separate processes.) Individual electors are typically public officials and party leaders chosen with input from that party’s presidential campaign.
Mr. Trump’s best chance, were he to find himself in this spot, could be to try to convince Democratic electors that they should vote for a third candidate, like Senator Bernie Sanders, preventing Mrs. Clinton from getting to 270 electoral votes and throwing the election to the House of Representatives.
Alternatively, and just as theoretically, the defeated candidate could assert that the electors in a given state are unjust and ask that state’s legislature to appoint a new slate of electors, Mr. Hasen said.
Appealing to Congress
The Congress recognizes and counts the votes of the Electoral College. So Mr. Trump could plead with Congress not to recognize a state’s votes, or to challenge the way they were counted, Mr. Hasen said. But that would be uncharted territory for Congress.