The Twittersphere is engaged in a heated debate about the significance of Trump’s ostentatious refusal to commit to accepting the results of the presidential election, with many liberals (and some conservatives) insisting that this represents an unprecedented attack on small-d democratic norms, and others on the right pointing to Al Gore’s extended Florida recount litigation 16 years ago as evidence that Democrats have also challenged the legitimacy of the electoral process.
The truth of the matter is that while Trump’s remarks were open to a wider range of interpretations than some commentators are suggesting, and all U.S. presidential candidates clearly reserve the right to contest results in the courts if there is a credible argument that the rules were broken, Trump’s pre-election conspiracy theorizing and doubt-sowing sets a precedent on a different order from Gore’s lawful court challenge. (If you doubt this, imagine if, as the incumbent President, Trump in 2020 declared in October that he would keep the American people “in suspense” about whether he would respect the results of an election to remove him from power.)
One important facet of this debate being overlooked in the re-litigation of the 2000 Florida recount is that America’s Electoral College is actually a brilliant mechanism for avoiding a situation where a contested election spirals out of control. After George Bush won the presidency while losing the popular vote by half a percentage point, many Democrats—including Hillary Clinton herself—called vociferously for the Electoral College to be eliminated. But whatever legitimate arguments there are against America’s peculiar system for electing presidents, the Electoral College actually acts as a formidable obstacle to Trump, and future sore-loser figures like him, who might be looking to create chaos after Election Day.
By design, the Founders’ system for selecting the President magnifies the winner’s margin of victory. Since 1900, according to a Heritage Foundation tally, 17 out of 29 U.S. presidential elections have been decided by an electoral margin of 200 or more. Seven more were decided by a margin between 100 and 200. Even when the overall vote totals are within a handful of percentage points, the Electoral College tends to deliver one side or the other a resounding affirmation. This enhances the finality even of close elections, and makes a call-to-arms by the losing side a harder sell.
To make a case for malfeasance, a losing candidate in the Electoral College needs to point to specific states where he thinks votes were counted unfairly, as Gore did in Florida. This makes the process of investigating the allegations much more efficient than generalized charges of wrongdoing, say, in major cities across the country. Needless to say a national recount in 2000 would have made the chaotic process in Florida look simple and orderly.
Donald Trump is currently projected to lose by 144 electoral votes, according to the New York Times Upshot forecast. After he loses, he might claim that the media has “poisoned the minds of the voters,” as he did at the debate last night, but that seems unlikely to be a sufficient argument to blow up the plain-to-see legitimacy of a defeat of that magnitude. He has pointed to Philadelphia as a potential site of voter fraud, but it is unlikely that Pennsylvania’s electoral votes will even be decisive in this election. In fact, Trump will likely lose a number of red-leaning states controlled by Republicans who have endorsed him. A challenge that amounts to anything more than standard Trumpian grumbling would need to involve specific allegations of voter fraud in parts of the country run by leaders of his own party. In a popular-vote system, meanwhile, Trump could make the nominally more believable argument that his blue state enemies had rigged ballots to run up his (say) ten-million-vote deficit.
In other words, for all the residual resentment about the 2000 election, recent events have put it in perspective: America accomplished a peaceful transfer of power (as it has many times before) after a heated election season that put our institutions under severe strain. Under a different system, the razor-thin margin might have triggered a national recount. (As Nate Silver has pointed out, if it weren’t for the Electoral College, the campaigns would have distributed their resources differently, and the result could have been even closer than 0.5 percent).
And in 2016, for all the liberal furor about Trump’s rhetorical brinksmanship on the legitimacy of this election, the Electoral College might also help ensure that the results are accepted without incident. Maybe the republican electoral system the Founders created will end up serving its intended function, albeit indirectly, by insulating American liberal-democratic institutions from a demagogue who takes transparent pleasure in watching them burn.
Correction: A previous version of this post misstated Hillary Clinton’s projected margin of victory in the RealClearPolitics electoral map.