FILE - A worker prepares tabulators for the upcoming election, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sept. 3, 2020. Early in-person voting starts Oct. 15, 2020, in all 100 counties in the battleground state.
FILE - A worker prepares tabulators for the upcoming election, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sept. 3, 2020. Early in-person voting starts Oct. 15, 2020, in all 100 counties in the battleground state.

A U.S. federal appeals court has ruled that as long as a voter in the state of North Carolina has mailed their absentee ballot no later than Election Day, election officials can count it even if it arrives after Election Day. 

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday denied a challenge to a North Carolina State Board of Elections rule that said it will accept mail-in ballots as late as November 12. The original regulations would have made the cutoff November 6. 

The 12-3 ruling involved all of the court’s active judges, instead of a more typical three-judge panel, signaling the importance of the case. 

The issue is playing out in courts all over the country as election officials, political parties and rights groups battle on the question of to what extent rules in each state should be changed as more people seek to avoid having to go to a polling place on November 3 due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Everyone must submit their ballot by the same date,” said the 4th Circuit ruling.  “The extension merely allows more lawfully cast ballots to be counted, in the event there are any delays precipitated by an avalanche of mail-in ballots.”

FILE - An election worker enters a polling station in Charlotte, North Carolina, April 24, 2019, as the station prepares for early voting.

The courts have generally sided with the rules put in place by state legislatures and election officials while denying challenges from political parties and outside groups. 

The legal challenges have included many of the states considered key to deciding which candidate will win the presidential election, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. 

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling by Pennsylvania’s top court allowing mail-in ballots to be counted if they arrive by November 6. 

Various courts gave voters in Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin similar extensions, but in each of those cases a higher court overturned the ruling.  Voters in all three states must now make sure their ballots are received by Election Day in order to be counted. 

Overall, about 20 U.S. states currently allow ballots to come in after Election Day as long as they are postmarked by November 3. 

Many states are also allowing people to cast ballots in person ahead of Election Day.  Combined with the mail-in votes, about 38 million people had already cast a ballot by Tuesday night, according to the U.S. Election Project. 

What Happens Next?

What It Means to Become President-Elect in the US

In the United States, Democrat Joe Biden is being called the president-elect.

President-elect is a descriptive term not an official office. As such, Biden has no power in the government, and he would not until he is inaugurated at noon on January 20, 2021.

American news networks, which track all of the vote counting, determined on November 7 that Biden’s lead had become insurmountable in Pennsylvania, putting him over the 270 electoral votes needed to be president. Within minutes of determining his lead was mathematically assured, they projected him as the winner.

That is why news organizations, including VOA, are calling Biden the "projected winner."

Sometimes, in the case of particularly close elections, when news networks make this call, the other candidate does not concede victory. President Donald Trump has not done so, alleging voter fraud without substantial evidence and vowing to fight on. The president’s position has left Washington lawmakers divided, with Republicans backing a legal inquiry into allegations of vote fraud, even as they celebrate other congressional lawmakers who won their races.

When will the dispute be resolved?

The U.S. election won’t be officially certified for weeks. In the meantime, court challenges and state recounts could occur.

So far, the Trump administration has not provided evidence for any fraud that could overturn the result, but there is still time for more legal challenges.

Once states have certified the vote, pledged electors then cast their votes in the Electoral College in mid-December. Congress then certifies the overall Electoral College result in early January, about two weeks before Inauguration Day.