Ballot rules, hacking theories and recounts — why the U.S. election drags on

More than 2½ weeks after the U.S. election, there are still votes being counted, hacking allegations being reported and recounts being requested. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about the election that won't end.

Answers to frequently asked questions about the election that won't end

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein wants a recount in three battleground states. (D. Ross Cameron/Associated Press)

More than 2½ weeks after the U.S. election, aspects of the vote are still dragging on. As votes continue to be counted, there have been accusations of possible vote hacking in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And now, a candidate for the presidency is petitioning for a recount in those states. Here's why the 2016 election results continue to make headlines.

Why are they still counting votes?

Every day seems to elicit another headline that Hillary Clinton's lead in the popular vote continues to grow. And that's because votes continue to be tabulated as each state has its own deadline for certifying the ballots.

"Since the 2000 election of Bush versus Gore ironically enough, some of the reforms, and well-intentioned and positive reforms, have had an unfortunate byproduct of delaying the counts," said Edward Foley, director of election law at Ohio State University.

Provisional ballots are the biggest factor in this. A person casts a provisional ballot if there's any question about his or her eligibility as a voter — if, for example, the voter hadn't registered or was trying to vote at the wrong polling place.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which required all states to have this provisional ballot process. So if a poll worker doesn't see the voter's name on the list of eligible voters, the worker still has to give the voter a provisional ballot, which then gets evaluated after the election to determine whether it should be counted. In a state like California, there's a large number of provisional ballots relative to population size, and those take time to evaluate.

Many states, for the sake of voter convenience, give people the option of sending an absentee ballot by mail. Voters used to need a compelling reason to vote this way, such as a disability or having to travel on business. But some states, like California, now have no excuse absentee voting, meaning any eligible voter can do it.

And states can set the deadline for when those ballots are received. California has said as long as those ballots are postmarked by election day, they can arrive days later.  

But all the votes in all the states will have to be certified before Dec. 19, when the electoral college meets and casts its votes for the next president.

What's all this talk about hacked results?

A New York magazine article  has created a lot of buzz, particularly among Clinton supporters, after reporting that "a group of prominent computer scientists and election lawyers" wants Clinton to call for a recount in three swing states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. 

A group of election lawyers and data experts has asked Clinton's campaign to call for a recount of the vote totals in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

According to the report, the group believes it found "persuasive evidence" that the results in those three states were manipulated or hacked. The article points to Wisconsin, for example, where Clinton received seven per cent fewer votes in counties that used electronic voting machines compared with counties that used optical scanners and paper ballots.

"Based on this statistical analysis, Clinton may have been denied as many as 30,000 votes; she lost Wisconsin by 27,000," according to the story.

And, the theory goes, if Clinton really won Wisconsin, then maybe she also won Michigan and Pennsylvania. With those three states added to her tally of electoral college votes, she would be the next president. 

Her campaign announced Saturday they would take part in the recount in a Wisconsin recount, or in the other battleground states of Pennsylvania and Michigan.

What are the odds the results were hacked?

"Zero or close to zero," said election law expert Edward Foley. "Do I think there was a problem with the count? No, I don't see any reason to think that." 

Many other experts have also dismissed the claims.

Foley said the nature of the results was consistent across all the states and he questioned why hackers would only target those three states and not larger ones like Florida and North Carolina.

Michael Cornfield, an associate professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and Research, agreed. Citing the Wisconsin example, Cornfield said the hacking theorists are cherry-picking and over-interpreting coincidence or correlation without causation.

"There's no anomaly here.  And that's what you look for when you suspect tampering."

So then why all this talk about recounts?

With high-profile hacks during the election campaign, and now the buzz over these three states, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein has launched a fundraising campaign for recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Stein said she wants to investigate the "unexpected results of the election and reported anomalies."

"These concerns need to be investigated before the 2016 presidential election is certified. We deserve elections we can trust," she said in a statement. 

Electronic voting machines have become popular in many U.S. states. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

How likely is Stein to get recounts?

Well, it looks promising in at least two states. 

On Friday, Stein's campaign organization filed a petition with the Wisconsin Elections Commission, which later said it was "preparing to move forward with a statewide recount of votes for president of the United States."

Under Wisconsin law, the petitioner for a recount must have been a candidate, must state a reason for a recount and must raise enough money to cover the filing fees if they didn't reach a certain percentage of the vote. Stein's campaign has estimated a Wisconsin recount will cost $1.1 million US, which the team says it has raised.

The problem could be the time constraints. There were about three million votes cast, and the Stein campaign wants the recount done by hand. The last recount in the state, in 2011, took more than a month to complete, meaning this recount could pass the Dec. 19 deadline for electoral college votes.

Stein's campaign said it has also raised enough money for a recount of the 4.8 million ballots in Michigan — a cost of $125 per precinct for the 6,300 precincts in the state, according to the Detroit Free Press. (Stein can't request a recount in Michigan until the vote is certified, which is expected on Monday.)

Pennsylvania might be a bit trickier. The state allows individual voters to petition for a recount, but the deadline was last Sunday. A candidate can also contest an election in court, and the deadline for that is Monday.

Will a recount change anything?

Very doubtful, most experts say. Recounts often increase the vote tallies of both candidates. Trump beat Clinton in Pennsylvania by 70,000 votes, in Michigan by 10,000 votes and in Wisconsin by 27,000 votes.

Even Stein herself said they don't have any "smoking gun" evidence of voter fraud, and that she's not trying to overthrow Donald Trump and doubts that will be the outcome.

Most experts say there's little chance recounts would overturn Donald Trump's victory. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

About the Author

Mark Gollom


Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Reuters