How to Legally Challenge an Election

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on October 31, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's no secret that Donald Trump thinks the upcoming presidential is "absolutely being rigged." When given the opportunity to clarify his stance, Trump said, "I would accept a clear election result, but I would also reserve my right to contest or file a legal challenge in the case of a questionable result."

If the results are "questionable," what would such a legal challenge look like? And what grounds would you need to challenge an election's results?

Republican election lawyer Chris Ashby told PBS that it wasn't necessary for Trump to reserve his right to contest the election this far in advance, and "after the election, if there is some evidence that an election of electors in a particular state was tainted by fraud, then he could pursue that." Ashby added:

"You can't just say that there was generally fraud. You have to know how many votes either from fraud or by mistake. And it has to be enough votes to cover the margin between the candidates. And so, if you think that you have to go out and actually get this evidence, you have to find voters, you have to election records, and you have to quantify this, and you have to do it in a time period of about a month."

So, in order for Trump, the Republican Party, or someone else to legally challenge the results of an election, the election must particularly close and there would need to be credible evidence of fraud or miscounting of votes, enough to cover the margin of victory.

State and Federal Questions

Even though president is a federal office, voting in federal elections is still run by the states. Each state has its own rules and procedures for counting and contesting votes, and any challenge to the results would occur at the state level. Some state laws may require a manual recount if results are within a certain margin, while others may provide a means for a candidate or party to request a recount. Either way, the challenge would need to be made regarding a particular state's results, and it would need to come quickly.

Most states have their own deadlines to certify final election results, and federal law requires all states to certify and report their results within 35 days of the election. Trump would need an extremely tight result, legitimate claims of fraud or mistake, and he would need to, very quickly, follow state-specific procedures for challenging that state's result. So a little bit more than simply not winning.

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