Donald Trump has already stated he might contest the election results if he doesn't win, and he's even gone as far as to say that the election is rigged against him. While it would be a complicated process, there is a legal procedure at the federal and state levels for contested elections and recounts when a race is extremely close.
History shows how candidates have handled such situations. The most recent example involves Al Gore, George W. Bush, and the dramatic 2000 election. While Gore never claimed the election was rigged after the votes were counted, an automatic recount took place because Bush's margin of victory over Gore was less than 0.5 percent in Florida. The case ultimately went to the Supreme Court, which ordered an end to the recount, giving us President Bush.
Here's a breakdown of exactly what happens when an election result is either too close to call or disputed.
1. If the victory margin is below a certain threshold, most states mandate a recount.
Contested elections are particularly complex because states have varying laws to deal with recounts. The majority of states, except for Hawaii and Mississippi, permit recounts when the margin of victory is low, such as the 0.5 percent threshold in Florida. Of those states, 20 automatically require a recount when the margin falls below a certain number. In Texas, South Dakota, and Alaska, that threshold is a tie.
2. Candidates who lose can sue for a recount.
If the margin of error isn't low enough and a candidate still wants to contest the election, state laws require that candidates have a legitimate reason to call for a recount, like voter fraud, illegal voting, and bribery. The candidate must also pay for the recount. For reference, a study from the Pew Research Center found that Washington state spent close to $1.2 million on a single gubernatorial recount in 2004. (Voters themselves can also petition for recounts if they have a valid reason. In those cases, the voter does not have to pay for the recount.)
The challenge ultimately plays out in court because the candidate must sue the state government. If the candidate feels like there is a legitimate reason for a recount in multiple states, he or she must sue state by state. States where candidates cannot challenge the results are New York, Arizona, South Carolina, Connecticut, and Tennessee.
3. Presidential election recounts have a time limit.
To complicate matters even further, a federal law limits how much time can pass before it's too late to request a recount. The safe harbor law, which was the source of dispute in Bush vs. Gore, requires popular votes to be counted six days before the electoral college meets to vote. The 129-year-old federal law says that each state's electoral college must meet to cast their vote the second Monday after the second Wednesday in December, or nearly six weeks after Election Day. This means that if a recount has not concluded six days before the state's electors meet, as was the case in 2000, then those electoral college votes might not be counted.
4. Congress has the final say in accepting votes after the deadline.
If a state does miss the safe harbor law, Congress has the power to reject or accept that state's electoral college votes. One example of this came up in the election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. After a recount was ordered in Hawaii weeks after the election due to a tight race, Kennedy was declared the winner, even though Nixon had initially taken the state. When Congress met to count the electoral votes by mid-December, Nixon (who was presiding over Congress at the time because he was vice president) said the second electoral votes that gave the victory to Kennedy were legitimate.
As NBC explained, "Perhaps Nixon's magnanimity stemmed from the fact that Kennedy beat him by 84 electoral votes, and Hawaii's three votes made no difference." No matter the reason, he accepted defeat with honor. "In our campaigns, no matter how hard fought they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be, those who lose accept the verdict and support those who won," said Nixon.
Trump can certainly learn something from Nixon's words, as well as from Gore's speech when he accepted the outcome of the election for the sake of US democracy despite winning the popular vote. If Trump does dispute the results on Election Day, he will have to provide valid evidence for a recount. Merely saying the election is rigged does not constitute an acceptable reason, especially when there's no evidence to suggest voter fraud will happen.