Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Spotlight
  2. Elections
9 November 2016

If he loses, can Donald Trump contest the US election result?

The Republican presidential candidate has refused to confirm he would accept a Hillary Clinton win. But does he have to?

By Stephanie Boland

One of the most ridiculous things Donald Trump has said during his presidential campaign – leaving aside that thing about the wall and, well, almost everything he’s said about women – is that he might not accept the result of the vote.

During the final presidential debate, late last month, Trump refused to confirm whether he would concede the debate, following claims the election has been “rigged” against him.

“I will keep you in suspense,” he told audiences, explaining that he would “look at it at the time”.

His comments the next day cleared things up a little – by Trump standards. Speaking at a rally in Ohio, definitely adult man Donald Trump confirmed he would accept the result…if he wins.

But if he loses, could he contest the result?

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Contesting results

A candidate can contest the results of a presidential election – but only at a state level.

Rather than call the whole thing illegitimate, Trump’s attempt at recourse could include challenging the vote in key, battleground states, like Nevada, Florida, Pennsylvania and possibly Michigan.

The laws that dictate how such challenges work are set on a state-by-state basis. They mostly only come in to play when there’s a narrow margin in the results. (If you’re bored, or, as my colleague Stephen might have it, “fascinated” with the “very important democratic process”, there’s a searchable database of state laws here.)

Of course, because of the electoral college system, we would expect Trump to aim to challenge a tight result in a state with a large number of electoral college votes; like Florida in 2000.

And if he loses that challenge?

Trump could suggest there’s some sort of federal constitution violation.

Sounds exciting

Super exciting! Mostly because it’s super rare.

Usually, any dispute over process is resolved at a state level. The US Congress meets on 6 January in a joint session to count the election votes, anyway, but it would also be up to them to settle any complaint that escalates above the state in question’s supreme court. (Florida in 2000 is again a rare case.)

What if Trump just whines like a massive baby?

He’s entitled to that. He doesn’t have to accept the result on election night – it’s preliminary at that stage, anyway – and can make as many histrionic, repetitive speeches as he wishes.

And after that?

Well, if Clinton wins, and has that win ratified by Congress, and Trump continues to attempt a legal challenge, we’re in uncharted waters.

If Clinton wins and has it ratified by Congress, and Trump continues to hoot away madly on Twitter for all 2017 – refuses to emotionally accept the result, if you will – well, what else did we really expect?