After a count and then a recount of votes in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, Democrat Rita Hart trailed her Republican opponent, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, by six votes — six votes out of nearly 400,000 cast.

There’s always some blurriness at the edges of elections, a space into which provisional ballots or improperly marked ballots or damaged ballots fall. Normally, the votes in this realm aren’t important; the margin of victory is robust enough that the gray zone does not matter. But on occasion, as in Iowa last year, those votes matter very much.

Hart challenged the result, asking the Democratic-led House to determine who should represent the district. Her attorney, Marc Elias, filed a brief contesting 22 edge-case ballots that he argued should have been included in the total, including a set of ballots that arrived in damaged envelopes. It was a potential test for Democrats in the House: Would they overturn the state-certified results to seat Hart? Would they play hardball to secure an extra seat that would pad their historically narrow margin in the chamber?

In late March, Hart rendered that question moot. She withdrew her complaint, pledging to focus on “ensuring the voices of Iowans who followed the law are not silenced” like those 22 voters at issue. But there’s a more important, broader message, too: Sometimes resolving an election and upholding confidence in the system require accepting that the inherent uncertainty worked against you.

There’s a concept in our online world called “taking the L.” It’s generally meant as a pejorative, with people who are perceived to have lost an argument being encouraged to be quiet and go away. The L is a loss. The idea is that some people refuse to admit that they have been beaten and, in so doing, just dig themselves deeper. So, take the L. Go home.

As an avid consumer of reality TV, I am reminded of the first few episodes of every season of “American Idol.” Invariably, there’s some subpar singer who shows up, brimming with confidence and who, after being rejected for inclusion in the competition, storms off, tearily insisting that the judges are morons and Americans have not heard the last of them. None of the names of these contestants springs to mind; they haven’t been heard of since. But this idea that the people who know about such things have offered an honest if unwelcome verdict that has been poorly received certainly has resonance of the “take the L” variety.

The obvious context for all of this is the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump lost by wide margins nationally and by wide-enough margins in swing states that there’s no serious question about the fact that he lost. This wasn’t 2000, when the entire election hinged on a few hundred votes in Florida. This was a loss for Trump that instead derived from tens of thousands of votes in several states — and that’s if you consider only the electoral college results.

Trump earned an L but has refused to take it. Instead, he has stormed off, promising that we haven’t heard the last of him.

The challenge, of course, is that the ramifications of rejecting the results of an election are obviously more dire than not having a chance to compete in a singing competition. Trump is both leveraging and accentuating a pattern of refusing to acknowledge defeat that poses real dangers for the American democratic system.

Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that he lost hinges on myriad assertions that something dubious or suspicious happened during the 2020 presidential contest. The sheer volume of claims is itself often cited as evidence that something needs to be done about election security, a claim that’s a bit like advocating legislation for mandated chimney locks given how many Americans (most of them under the age of 7) believe in Santa Claus.

There remains no credible evidence of the 2020 results being influenced or shifted in any way that would suggest widespread fraud. (Quite the opposite.) But there is a substantial industry predicated on claiming that voting results are suspect, claims into which Trump and others could tap. Washington Post reporters walked through one such effort over the weekend, exploring how an executive named Russell J. Ramsland Jr. had been working for years to elevate among Republican candidates his baseless claims of fraud. A number of claims later elevated by Trump and his allies were also promulgated by Ramsland, including a forehead-slapping assertion about over-voting in Michigan that mistakenly used data from Minnesota.

At one point, Ramsland worked with a former Texas city council candidate, Laura Pressley, whose predilection for conspiracy theories helped tank her 2014 campaign. But her response to that 30-point loss is instructive.

“I knew in my heart that I had won,” she recently told a gathering of law enforcement officers outside Houston, one of hundreds of speeches she has given about the case, “and I became convinced there was fraud.”

This is a revealing comment: The belief in fraud — again, not demonstrated — followed the belief that she must have won.

It’s not uncommon for new candidates to be overconfident in their chances. They’re surrounded by friends and family who are cheering them on, even giving them money. Low-level candidates don’t do things like conduct polls or hire experienced operatives, so there’s no objective fail-safe that might point their assumptions in a different direction. Then people vote, and they get clobbered, and they have to figure out how to internalize that. When there’s no shortage of conspiracy theories about voting machines online, it can be easy for anyone to jump to incorrect assumptions. That’s probably especially true for Pressley, who had already embraced conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

There’s probably some of this at play for Trump, too. After all, he has run for office only twice and, the first time he did, he consistently beat the odds. No one thought he would win the nomination in 2016, and then he did. People thought Hillary Clinton would beat him easily in the general election, and she didn’t. He learned to distrust polling and predictions, an unusually justified response that clearly fit neatly into his preexisting sense that he could never allow himself to be seen as losing. In 2020, that instinct was exacerbated by a right-wing media eager to pander to his loyal base of support and systems like Ramsland’s that were focused on spreading conspiracy theories of benefit to Trump.

So we end up with ridiculous attempts to dig up evidence like the vote-counting effort promoted by Arizona Republicans — an effort that one Republican state senator who had supported the idea has since disparaged.

“It makes us look like idiots,” state Sen. Paul Boyer told the New York Times. “I didn’t think it would be this ridiculous. It’s embarrassing to be a state senator at this point.”

We’ve also seen how the erosion of confidence based on refusals to accept reality can ripple outward.

Republicans in Virginia held a primary to identify the party's gubernatorial candidate over the weekend, the results of which are still uncertain. But one candidate for the position, Trumpian state Sen. Amanda Chase, warned that the state party was trying to subvert the process.

“Clear corruption by RPV,” Chase tweeted, referring to the Republican Party of Virginia. “I will not honor a pledge if the Party cannot run a fair process.”

The results have been slow to come in because, as The Post reported on Sunday, the party has to hand-count 30,000 submitted ballots, “a painstaking process that three gubernatorial contenders demanded amid fears that vote-tallying software the party had considered could not be trusted.”

“Two campaigns even tailed a car carrying ballots from Prince William County to Richmond because they did not trust the two party-appointed couriers,” our Laura Vozzella and Justin Jouvenal reported. The process is predicated on a lack of trust that manifests in weird ways but also taints whatever outcome results.

Nor has Trump been the only recent high-profile Republican to reject the obvious will of voters. Kimberly Klacik became a conservative media phenomenon as she sought to oust Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) in Maryland’s 7th District. She raised a ton of money (a qualified success) — and lost by 44 points. Her response? Claims of fraud in the deeply Democratic district.

A few months prior, a candidate for the Republican nomination for Senate in Massachusetts, Shiva Ayyadurai, alleged that he lost because of fraud. He lost by 20 points and, after running as a write-in candidate in the general election, earned about 21,000 votes in November out of 3.5 million total. But he has nonetheless became a somewhat prominent figure in Republican politics in recent months, making complicated quasi-statistical claims about fraud in defense of Trump’s assertions.

At some point out, you just have to take the L. Particularly when not doing so means leveraging dubious or unfounded claims in order to undermine confidence in American democracy.