Let's lay out some basic facts. As you may have heard, the presidential election was held on November 8, 2016. Donald Trump won the election, making him the president-elect. Unless some kind of miracle happens — like Trump dropping dead or a meteor striking — on January 20, 2017, he'll be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. It hurts me to write these sentences as much as it hurts you to read them. Unfortunately, they're true.
Given this shocking turn of events, it's not too surprising that many people find themselves ping-ponging between the denial and the bargaining stages of grief. Just look at the millions of dollars that Green Party candidate Jill Stein was able to crowd-fund — more money than she raised for her entire election campaign — to pay for recounts in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. These states were selected because they are three states a Republican hadn't won since the '80s, they went to Trump by thin margins relative to the total number of votes cast nationwide, and if Clinton had been able to win all three, she would have won the election.
But there's no reason to believe that there were widespread systematic errors that resulted in hundreds of thousands of votes being miscounted. And there's no real reason to believe that the election has been tampered with, loose talk about Russian hackers aside. If you look at the county-by-county results, there aren't any anomalies that would lead one to suspect that the election had been manipulated. Even if you give Michigan and Wisconsin to Hillary, winning Pennsylvania alone gives Trump the presidency. Trump's margin of victory in Pennsylvania is pretty thick — about the same size as Hillary's combined margin of victory in Minnesota, Nevada, and New Hampshire. A recount isn't going to change the results of the election.
The other reason for the angst is that although Donald Trump’s margin of victory in the Electoral College is a healthy 74 electoral votes, more people voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for Donald Trump. At last count, the margin was about 2.5 million votes, in an election in which there were about 130 million voters. It feels undemocratic and unfair that the person who got the most votes did not win the election, and that a minority of voters was able to make such an important decision on behalf of the country. Donald Trump, for his part, also seems to be bothered by this. He's tweeted several times about the presidential election, arguing that he would have run a different campaign if the election were determined by popular vote, and that the Electoral College fundamentally changes the way campaigns are run. Trump is correct. (And again, it gives me no pleasure to write this sentence.)
If the election were decided by popular vote, then presidential campaigns would be run completely differently. Campaigns would make different decisions about where to buy airtime for commercials, where to spend time building their GOTV operations, and where to send their candidates. Voters would also make different decisions. For instance, a dying cocker spaniel would win California if it ran on the Democratic ticket. Knowing this fact makes every Californian's vote feel less meaningful, and that means that some Californians might not vote in the presidential election at all. If we had a simple democratic election for president, then their vote would mean as much as anyone else's. All of these decisions would affect which voters turn out where, so there’s reason to believe that a real popular vote would have substantially different results than the raw vote total. In other words, we don’t know what the real popular vote is, because we don’t conduct our presidential election by popular vote, and the ersatz "popular vote" of the raw vote count doesn’t have any special moral authority or legitimacy.
Some people have argued that even if an audit of the vote is unlikely to change the results of the election, it's still a good idea because it seems to bother Trump. This might have made some sense if we were still having an election, because annoying a candidate sometimes leads to them getting off message or even having an embarrassing meltdown. But even during the race, this was sort of a dubious strategy to employ against Trump, whose entire campaign took the form of one long digressive meltdown. But now, after the election, it's especially useless. Annoying Donald Trump or goading him into asinine tweets isn't going to prevent him from filling his Cabinet with sycophants and incompetents, and it's not going to block his legislative agenda. In fact, I’d suggest that we entirely abandon the practice of using what Donald Trump is or isn't tweeting about as a litmus test for what is or isn't important, and instead rely on our own judgment. There are lots of things that Trump cares very much about — like the size of his fingers and what that says about his masculinity — that don't matter. There are other things that he cares very little about, like who should be in charge of HUD, that matter quite a bit.
Others have argued that the recount is important in order to maintain the public's confidence in the election results. Trump tweeted that he won the popular vote "if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." This is a serious charge coming from the president-elect, and it's a laudable goal to want to quell the public's fears that the election is being manipulated. But it's also a category error — you can't refute someone's fantasy by using facts. The person who believes, without a shred of evidence, in a vast and complicated vote-rigging scheme is a conspiracy theorist, and conspiracy theorists are famously not amenable to having their minds changed by official reports. You might as well try to convince someone that lizard people don't exist by appealing to biology.
There's no real harm in the actual process of doing a full recount of the election. I don't believe, as some have argued, that calling for a recount itself erodes the public trust in the integrity of the process. The problem is that this time and money that are being invested in a futile attempt to stop Trump could be better spent in ways that could cushion the damage he's about to do, and/or prevent his reelection. There are hundreds of underfunded organizing groups and nonprofits that could use a slice of that recount money. There is another election in two years, in which a third of the seats in the Senate and every single seat in the House will be contested. There's even an active Senate race happening right now in Louisiana. The Democratic candidate is a long shot, but he's a much surer bet than a recount.
We all have a limited amount of emotion, energy, and money to spend on politics. A decision to expend some of it on a recount is a decision not to spend it elsewhere, and spending some of it nurturing an ember of hope that the election results can change is a waste of time. Douse that ember. Plunge it into cold water. The sooner we admit to ourselves that the election is over, the sooner we can start trying to deal with its consequences.