Many people assume the winner of the U.S. presidential contest is determined once the media calls the race and the losing candidate delivers a concession speech. But the truth is that formally declaring a presidential winner is a months-long process that won’t be completed until January.
That process essentially involves Americans voting for electors, the electors voting for the president, and then Congress declaring the winner.
“There's Election Day, where those electors are elected; there's the date in December where the electors meet and then vote for president; and then there's the date in January where the Congress certifies that election,” says Amy Dacey, executive director of the Sine Institute of Policy and Politics at American University.
In addition to the Electoral College, certifying the winner of the presidential election involves the Senate, House of Representatives and the National Archives.
This process is the result of a compromise among the Founding Fathers, who weren’t convinced voters could be trusted to choose a worthy leader.
“This was first created because there wasn't that confidence in the citizenry to make that decision,” Dacey says. “They didn't believe the American people should directly choose the president and vice president, but they didn't want to give Congress the sole power of selection, either.”
COVID-19 could complicate counting
Election experts predict counting the ballots will take longer this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased number of voters that are expected to cast mail-in ballots.
“These are legal procedures that have to be followed,” says Lia Merivaki, assistant professor of American Politics at Mississippi State University. “Pushing for the election to be called on election night will create more confusion and will create distrust and ... possibly, many are going to start suing the states because they expect the results to be announced on election night. So it will make the job of election officials and the states harder as they try to keep the process transparent and fair.”
Once the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, tally the in-person, mail-in and provisional ballots, each state governor draws up a list of electors. Copies of this list, known as the Certificate of Ascertainment, are submitted to the U.S. Archivist, the head of the National Archives.
The electors then meet in their state capitals — the District of Columbia’s meet in D.C. — to formally cast their votes for president and vice president. This must occur on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. This year, that date falls on Dec. 14.
The electors in each of the states complete Certificates of Vote and send them to the U.S. Senate, the National Archives and state officials. Once that is done, the Electoral College has no further duties until the next presidential election.
The final step in the process occurs on Jan. 6, 2021, when Congress meets to count the electoral votes and officially certify the winner. The process is ordinarily ceremonial, but there can be objections. There were objections to some Electoral College votes in 1969 and 2005, but the House and Senate rejected the objections and the votes in question were counted.
Whether or not objections will be filed in the aftermath of the 2020 election is yet to be known, but President Donald Trump has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud related to mail-in voting.
“This is uncharted territory and I hope we don't get to that because you really are overhauling years of democratic norms and procedures,” Merivaki says. “I think that it would be very extreme if the Senate is going to take an action that really cancels the will of the people. I think that will be very problematic for the status of democracy in the United States … I mean, that’s not a democracy anymore.”
Dacey thinks complications could arise if the winner of the popular vote doesn’t also win the Electoral College. President Trump won the Electoral College in 2016 but lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The same occurred in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush won the Electoral College but narrowly lost the popular vote to Democrat Al Gore.
“I think the biggest question is, ‘Do voters feel like when they cast their ballot on Election Day, it is a deciding factor in who represents them?’ In every other election, it is, because it is that popular vote that's the determiner,” Dacey says.
“I do think that it can diminish people's faith in the process, and it could diminish the engagement, and I want more people voting," she adds. "And if they think their popular vote, their vote on Election Day, doesn't actually make that decision, I think it's just going to cause a challenge for participation and people’s faith in the system."