Here’s what you need to know while watching the election returns. We all know it’s not a national vote: You can win the most votes and still lose the election. But it’s also not as simple as winning the most Electoral College votes.
The presidential election is a complicated process involving federal rules, state rules, and even county rules. It also consists of multiple steps which, historically, have been overlooked because the outcome was already understood. This year, however, what happens on election night could very well determine whether those formalities play out the way they should, or whether yet another set of norms is undermined and overturned to subvert the will of the people. Those norms can be guarded only if the public knows the facts and holds their media and leaders accountable to those facts.
Here are some of the vulnerable points between the vote and the inauguration: Each state certifies their final count
- By Dec. 14, governors report to Congress the victor in their state and their slate of electors
- Electors meet and vote in each state and report their results to Congress
- On Jan. 6, 2021, Electoral College votes are counted in a joint session of the new Congress
That’s the process every four years. But you may have noticed that a lot of people have a chance to meddle with this process -- including state legislatures, which theoretically can send their own slate of electors to Congress. In fact, pretty much anyone can send their own Electoral College slate to Congress...and Congress can pick whichever one it wants.
If any of these gambits are tried, their success will likely be determined not by the law, but by the power of popular opinion. Because the process is so arcane and little-covered, there is no broad-based public consensus about what norms and fairness should look like -- which creates opportunities to elevate non-normal processes (such as alternative electoral slates) in a way that makes them seem appropriate. And fueling chaos -- or the perception of chaos -- could open the door for “remedies” that rob some Americans of their votes, or throw the decision-making to political officials instead of the voters.
For instance, if county officials call for an end to counting votes, that could negate the votes of absentee voters and others who vote by mail -- such as expatriates or Americans serving overseas. But legal fights over these vote counts could also delay state certification of the vote tallies. And in that case, governors are empowered to report to Congress whoever they consider the winner. Or state legislatures could step in to “resolve” the alleged chaos by sending their own slate of electors to Congress.
What IS different this year is coronavirus -- and degraded mail service. This means that mail-in ballots are now both a significant proportion of the final, and also may differ in their partisan makeup. Specifically, more Trump voters are expected to vote in person on Election Day, while more Biden voters are expected to vote early and/or by mail. This means that the media models for “calling” winners are a lot less reliable.
Whatever happens, whether the process plays out the way it’s supposed to this year depends a lot on what the public and their leaders do and say on Election Day and immediately after the polls close.
There is no official winner on Election Night; the “calls” that we see on TV every year are projections -- aka guesses -- made by media organizations based on polling and statistical models. There has never, in U.S. history, been a candidate who officially won the presidency on Election Day.
Polls suggest that votes cast early and by mail are disproportionately Democratic. Depending on when states count votes of both kinds, these factors could lead early results to skew for or against either party. In our guide to key swing states, we note these factors and offer some guidance on how they could create misleading perceptions in early returns.
As recent elections have taught us, however, the national results could hinge on just a handful of disputed states, or just one. And the results there could hinge on the specific people and institutions in those states. So here’s what to know on election night about the states most likely to play pivotal roles in the outcome -- especially if the fight drags on. (Although some races are noted in addition to the presidency, keep in mind that all House seats are up for grabs, but only some Senate and gubernatorial ones are.)