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Wisconsin recount confirms Biden’s win over Trump, cementing the president’s failure to change the election results

Election workers in Milwaukee review ballots at the Wisconsin Center on Nov. 21 (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The recount of presidential ballots in Wisconsin’s two largest counties reconfirmed Sunday that President-elect Joe Biden beat President Trump in the key swing state by more than 20,000 votes, the latest example of the president’s flailing efforts to undo the election results.

The completion of the recount — which the Trump campaign had requested — added to a pileup of defeats for the president as he continues to attack Biden’s national victory, claiming without evidence that widespread fraud tainted the results. His campaign has vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, though it has yet to do so, while suffering losses nearly every day in state and federal courts.

After the completion of the recount in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County on Friday and Dane County on Sunday, there was little change in the final breakdown of the more than 800,000 ballots that had been cast in the two jurisdictions. In the end, Biden’s lead over Trump in the state grew by 87 votes.

President Trump lost his bid for re-election, but he and many of his most fervent supporters have refused to accept it. (Video: The Washington Post)

Under Wisconsin law, Trump was required to foot the bill — meaning his campaign paid $3 million, only to see Biden widen his margin.

With the recount concluded, the president is rapidly running out of opportunities to try to slow Biden’s march to the presidency.

Four of the six states where Trump has questioned the results have already certified their vote tallies. His efforts to stop Michigan officials from finalizing the vote there earlier this month ran aground. A hand recount of ballots in Georgia confirmed Biden’s win in that state. A second recount there will conclude Wednesday, but Georgia election officials do not expect it to significantly change Biden’s approximately 12,000-vote margin.

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Meanwhile, two new court decisions in Pennsylvania late last week rejected the Trump campaign’s attempts to halt the vote count in that state, the latest in a series of forceful judicial opinions that have tossed out claims by the president and his allies around the country.

The Post's Jon Swaine analyzes the Trump campaign's last-ditch legal attempts to get the result of the 2020 election overturned. (Video: The Washington Post)

The last key vote certifications could come Monday, when Arizona is set to finalize its results, along with Wisconsin, which announced Sunday it would complete its state canvass then.

Republicans, including the three who sit on Wisconsin’s six-member election commission, may attempt to delay certification. However, under state law, the chair of the commission — currently a Democrat — has the authority to finalize the results.

The president and his legal advisers have said they still plan to fight in court in an attempt to prevent Wisconsin from moving forward.

“The Wisconsin recount is not about finding mistakes in the count, it is about finding people who have voted illegally, and that case will be brought after the recount is over, on Monday or Tuesday,” Trump tweeted Saturday. “We have found many illegal votes. Stay tuned!”

Trump campaign legal adviser Jenna Ellis claimed without evidence in a statement Sunday that the recounts had “revealed serious issues regarding the legality of ballots cast.”

“As we have said from the very beginning, we want every legal vote, and only legal votes to be counted, and we will continue to uphold our promise to the American people to fight for a free and fair election,” she said.

Danielle Melfi, the Wisconsin state director of the Biden campaign, said in a statement that local boards of canvassers had “resoundingly rejected — often on a bipartisan basis — the Trump campaign’s baseless attempts to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who simply followed the law when they voted. And despite repeated incendiary accusations, there was no evidence of fraud whatsoever.”

Even if the Trump campaign were to pull out a surprise courtroom win — which legal experts said is unlikely — it would do little to change the outcome of the White House race, which Biden won with 306 electoral votes. The electoral college will meet on Dec. 14 to formalize his victory.

Still, Trump escalated his false claims about the election during a telephone interview with Fox News on Sunday, alleging that Democrats had orchestrated a “big, massive dump” of hundreds of thousands of illegal votes in the election.

The president made it clear that he would never accept his loss and is even contemplating the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the election, though that decision would fall to Attorney General William P. Barr.

“My mind will not change in six months,” Trump told host Maria Bartiromo on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures.” “There was tremendous cheating here.”

But he faces diminishing avenues to make such claims.

After a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit resoundingly rejected the Trump campaign’s attempts to undo the certification of the Pennsylvania vote last week, Ellis vowed that the campaign would take the case to the Supreme Court.

However, the 3rd Circuit decision involved only a technical question about whether the Trump campaign could amend its lawsuit. And the categorical nature of the ruling by a panel of three Republican-nominated judges — written by a judge nominated by Trump — did not bode well for the campaign’s chances.

On Sunday, Trump acknowledged that he may not succeed in getting the country’s high court to weigh in.

“The problem is, it’s hard to get into the Supreme Court,” he said on Fox News. “I have got the best Supreme Court advocates, lawyers, that want to argue the case, if it gets there. But they said it’s very hard to get a case up there. Can you imagine? Donald Trump, president of the United States, files a case, and I probably can’t get a case, even with — and we have tremendous proof.”

In fact, the Trump’s campaign’s path to the nation’s highest court has been made more difficult by just how little evidence it has offered to lower-level courts of voting irregularities, drawing repeated rebukes from judges.

In Wisconsin, the president’s campaign sought to use the recount process to invalidate tens of thousands of otherwise legal ballots. Among other things, Trump’s lawyers argued that a form signed by voters who cast a ballot during in-person voting before Election Day was insufficient under state law. They said all of those ballots — totaling about 180,000 votes in the two counties — should be tossed out.

In last-gasp maneuver, Trump campaign tries to invalidate thousands of votes as Wisconsin recount gets underway

They also complained about a practice in place since 2016 that allows election officials to fix tiny errors on the certification envelopes of some mail-in ballots, as well as rules in place since 2011 that allow some people to declare themselves “indefinitely confined” due to age or disability and vote without showing a photo ID.

Local officials in each county rejected the Trump campaign arguments and included the ballots in the recount.

In announcing Dane County’s results Sunday, Clerk Scott McDonell told reporters that he saw Trump’s tweet as “a clear admission to the fact that there was no fraud found here” and an acknowledgment that the Trump campaign’s concerns amounted to “objections to policies.”

He said the process should “reassure” the public about the accuracy of the count, but said he found it “disturbing” that the Trump campaign had targeted only two Democratic counties for practices in place across Wisconsin.

Two conservative groups filed lawsuits last week asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to consider challenges to the recount process. The seven-member elected court has not yet said whether it will agree to hear the cases; conservatives have a 4-to-3 majority on the court. The Trump campaign is not so far a party to either suit.

Legal experts have said the arguments advanced by the Trump campaign during the recount were thin. They also said that even if judges were to conclude that some practices by Wisconsin clerks were technically flawed, they would be extremely unlikely to throw out tens of thousands of ballots cast by voters who did nothing wrong other than follow the rules, as directed by election officials.

Further undermining the Trump campaign’s argument, experts said, is the fact that it raised objections in only two predominantly Democratic counties.

The practices that Trump lawyers criticized are in place statewide and have been in place for years, including before the 2016 election — which Trump won and did not contest.

Their arguments would not invalidate only Biden votes. Documents prepared as part of the Dane County recount showed that the Trump campaign’s lead attorney in Wisconsin, James Troupis, had voted early and in person. He essentially argued that his own vote was illegal and should not be counted. Troupis did not respond to requests for comment.

“This whole strategy is so shortsighted. It’s so self-destructive in the long term,” said James Wigderson, a conservative activist and editor of the website RightWisconsin, who did not vote for Trump.

He argued that the GOP gambit sent a strong message to voters of color that the Republican Party believes their votes are less valid than those cast in White suburbs and rural areas. “Republicans should be outraged by this,” he said.

Under Wisconsin law, Trump was allowed to request the recount because Biden’s margin of victory — about 0.6 percent — was less than 1 percent. However, Trump’s campaign was required to pay for the recount because Biden’s margin was more than 0.25 percent. Trump could have requested a full statewide recount, at a cost of nearly $8 million. Instead, his campaign opted to pay less for a narrower recount in two counties.

“This recount demonstrated what we already know: that elections in Milwaukee County are fair, transparent, accurate and secure,” County Clerk George Christenson said as the county election commission voted to certify its results Friday. “We have once again demonstrated good government in Wisconsin.”

The recount required dozens of election employees to work for more than 12 hours a day since Nov. 20, taking off only Thanksgiving Day. Officials in both counties took over local convention centers to allow workers to spread out, erected plexiglass shields and instructed workers and observers alike to wear masks.

Still, election officials worried employees could have been exposed to the coronavirus while conducting a process they had asserted from the start was exceptionally unlikely to change the state’s results, given Biden’s margin of victory.

“I’m very concerned,” Christenson said in an interview.

He noted that there among the 300 people who gathered at a convention center each day for the recount was a poll worker who was pregnant. A member of the local elections commission, who had to be on site full time to adjudicate challenges raised by the Trump campaign, is 73 years old and has a heart condition, he said.

In other states, a few scattered legal efforts are still underway. In Nevada, the Trump campaign has filed a formal election contest under a state law that allows a losing candidate to challenge the results of an election based on illegal votes cast or official malfeasance. The campaign has asked a judge to declare Trump the winner or annul the election, which would mean neither candidate would receive the state’s six electoral votes.

To prevail, Trump’s lawyers would have to show enough voting irregularities to cast doubt on Biden’s win of more than 33,000 votes. That seems unlikely, given that judges have rejected Republicans’ previous allegations of wrongdoing and fraud — some of which are repeated in the Trump election contest.

Nevada law allows the Trump campaign to conduct depositions as part of the election challenge.

In Arizona, state Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward has also said she intends to file an election contest in that state after the results are certified Monday.

Ward has already asked a judge to allow her to begin examining mail ballots, claiming that the signature verification process allowed fraudulent votes to be counted. A hearing is scheduled for Monday.

Also Monday, Arizona Republicans are planning to host Trump campaign lawyers Ellis and Rudolph W. Giuliani in what they are calling a “fact-finding hearing” on election fraud.

The Trump campaign has billed the meeting as a hearing held by the state legislature. In fact, it is a meeting of certain members of the legislature at a Hyatt Regency in Phoenix — much like a similar press event held in Gettysburg, Pa., last week, during which Giuliani and Ellis repeated numerous unfounded claims of fraud.

Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich has defended the integrity of Arizona’s election. He and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey are expected to be present at the certification of results on Monday.

Robert Barnes, Emma Brown, Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Jon Swaine contributed to this report.