On Wednesday afternoon, near the start of one of the year’s final news droughts, former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein announced a new campaign: to pay for recounts in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The news went first to the journalist Greg Palast, then on Stein’s Facebook page, then in an interview with the Russian propaganda channel RT.
‘‘This has been a hack-riddled election,’’ Stein explained. ‘‘We have voting machines that are extremely hack-friendly in an election that’s been very contentious.’’
Stein’s fund-raising goal was $2.5 million — and donors blew right past it. At that point, as New York magazine first reported, the goal spiked to $4.5 million, and new language on the donation page admitted that costs could rise higher. ‘‘The costs associated with recounts are a function of state law,’’ the Stein campaign wrote. ‘‘Attorney’s fees are likely to be another $2 [million]-3 million, then there are the costs of the statewide recount observers in all three states. The total cost is likely to be $6 [million]-7 million.’’
It’s a lot of money, especially for the Green Party. Stein’s 2016 campaign, the party’s most electorally potent since 2000, took in $3,509,477 from donors. As of Thursday afternoon, the recount effort had raised $3,875,502. It’s the largest donation drive for a third party in history — so what’s actually going on?
The Green Party has done this before, to little result. In 2004, when many Democrats asked whether Ohio had been lost to voter suppression, the Green Party teamed up with the Libertarian Party to pay for a recount. David Cobb, the then-presidential candidate for the Green Party, had not even appeared on Ohio’s ballot, but he helped raise $150,000 to start the recount process. ‘‘Due to widespread reports of irregularities in the Ohio voting process,’’ said Cobb and Michael Badnarik, the then-presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, ‘‘we are compelled to demand a recount of the Ohio presidential vote. Voting is the heart of the democratic process in which we as a nation put our faith.’’
The result: Democrat John Kerry gained a bit less than 300 votes on George W. Bush, making virtually no difference in the margin.
The inspiration for the recount: theories ranging from sketchy to debunked. In 2004, Greg Palast was the most prominent of several analysts arguing that more Ohio voters intended to elect Kerry than Bush, but enough ballots were rejected and spoiled to stop them. He did similar work in the run-up to 2016, warning that voter suppression was going to ‘‘steal the vote’’ in key states.
‘‘Being right never felt so horrid,’’ Palast wrote after the election.
Palast has celebrated and promoted the new effort, which could turn up additional votes as ballots are re-scanned. But the recount won attention because of an unrelated theory: that electronic voting machines might have been attacked by hackers. The Twitter hashtag #AuditTheVote was trending days before the Stein campaign began, and stories of how machines could be hacked have begun being shared again.
But voting machines can’t be hacked from afar, and the people with the most to lose — Democrats, who literally lost — haven’t been convinced that machines were hacked. They closely monitored Election Day, with volunteers at every swing state polling place, as is customary.
The Greens themselves have not endorsed any theory of what went wrong. The closest they’ve come was in Stein’s RT interview, where she said ‘‘reports have come in from cyber experts, from security experts, and others.’’
If the election were hacked, a recount couldn’t prove it. Most of Pennsylvania voters use direct record electronic machines, with no paper ballot whatsoever. In other races where those machines have been probed — like Virginia’s 2005 attorney general contest — the recount has consisted of the machine results simply being scanned again. The lost/spoiled votes Palast has talked about are not part of that system. (Meanwhile, nearly every Michigan vote has a paper record.)
Stein doesn’t claim that the recount will elect Hillary Clinton. That desire has motivated many donors, but Stein spent much of 2016 telling interviewers that the Democratic nominee was more dangerous than Donald Trump. In her own comments since the recount effort began, she described the election as ‘‘hacked’’ but doesn’t say that the wrong result came out of it.
‘‘We need a voting system that allows us to bring our values to the vote,’’ Stein told RT, spending much of the interview plugging ranked-choice voting and open debates.