What Happens if Donald Trump Doesn't Concede the Election?

PHOTO: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Oct. 19, 2016.PlayWin McNamee/Getty Images
WATCH Presidential Concessions Through the Years

Despite repeated claims of a “rigged” election, Republican candidate Donald Trump still managed to surprise voters during Wednesday night’s final presidential debate by suggesting that he would not accept the results of November’s contest.

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“What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time,” Trump told moderator Chris Wallace. “I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?”

Trump’s refusal to accept the election outcome would be unprecedented and a renunciation of a tradition with a deep history in the United States’ democratic process.

Speaking at a campaign rally today in Ohio, he reiterated his stance.

“I would like to promise and pledge to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election. If I win,” he said.

There is no requirement in election law that losing candidates concede. Additionally, the concession is typically made only by the candidate finishing in second place; scores of elections have been decided without concessions from minor-party candidates.

“While we certainly have come to expect the tradition of the election night concession in the television era, especially when the results appear conclusive, it bears repeating that there is no official status to preliminary returns,” said Edward B. Foley, an election law expert and a professor at the Mortiz College of Law at Ohio State University, who has written about the subject.

“In short, we don’t have a constitutional crisis on our hands if we don’t have a gracious concession on election night, even if the result appears a blowout,” he continued.

A losing candidate’s concession legitimizes the election for that person’s supporters. While Trump’s claims that the election is “rigged” have been levied without any supporting evidence, plenty of the Republican nominee’s supporters believe his allegations.

When then–Vice President Al Gore notably rescinded his concession to George W. Bush in 2000, he did so to indicate that his campaign would wait for the results of an automatically triggered recount of votes in Florida. After the debate, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, used the Gore example to defend Trump’s comments.

“Remember, Al Gore did concede. He conceded to Gov. George W. Bush and then called and rejected the concession and went on to contest the results,” said Conway. “It went all the way to the Supreme Court. Election Day was early November, maybe Nov. 6 that year, and that case was decided on Dec. 12.”

Trump made a similar argument at today’s rally, saying, “If Al Gore or George Bush had agreed three weeks before the election to concede the results and waive their right to a legal challenge or a recount, then there would be no Supreme Court case.”

However, in Gore’s situation, the point of contention was the final count of the vote and the process by which those votes were counted, not allegations of fraud. After seeking additional time for the recount in Florida to continue — a request denied by the Supreme Court — Gore did concede the election, for a second time, to Bush.

“Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States. And I promised him that I wouldn’t call him back this time,” Gore said in his concession speech.

“Let there be no doubt. While I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it,” he added. “I accept the finality of this outcome.”

Trump is free to request a recount of votes, but the comparison to the 2000 election is a difficult one to make. Gore’s case, based on the status of the electoral votes at the time, was that Florida’s result, already shown to have a thin margin, based on exit polls, would swing the election’s outcome. It would be difficult for Trump to reasonably ask for a recount if there is a wider electoral vote gap between him and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Whether or not Trump concedes, the process to verify the election results will go forward as it does after every presidential election. State boards of election, departments of state and other organizations responsible for counting votes will publicly report their results. Members of the Electoral College then cast their ballots based on that total, and the final electoral count is read before a joint session of Congress in January, confirming the outcome.

As debate moderator Chris Wallace noted Wednesday night, the more significant concern at hand is not the certainty of the winner but the continuation of the tradition of a “peaceful transition of power.”

“The loser concedes to the winner, and … the country comes together in part for the good of the country,” Wallace said. He then asked Trump, “Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?”

“I will look at it at the time,” said Trump. “I’m not looking at anything now.”