It could be days or even weeks before we know the full outcome of the US presidential election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and it’s likely to be complicated. Here’s when we might start getting answers.
When is the US presidential election?
Officially, the election date is November 3, which is a Tuesday in the US and a Wednesday in New Zealand (The Spinoff will have live coverage all day as the chaos unfolds). In previous elections the result has generally been known by the end of election night – but 2020 won’t be a normal election.
Why is that?
The impact of Covid-19 in the US has led to a massive surge of early voting, either through mail-in ballots or through going to a polling station. At the time of writing, more than 66 million Americans had cast a vote like this, and many states changed their rules in order to allow voters to spread out more.
Can’t early votes be counted easily on the day?
Oh no, absolutely not. There are a few reasons for this. The election is basically run as a series of state by state contests, and so different rules apply for each. Some allow early votes and mail-in ballots to be counted before election day, others require the count to be started on the day, and still others allow for ballots received after election day to be counted, provided they’re postmarked before election day. This means there will be some real discrepancies between each state on the completeness of the results on the night.
One phenomenon to look out for is the so-called “red mirage”: the appearance that Trump is winning on election night, possibly by a landslide, only for him to ultimately lose. This scenario is in play because Democrats are far more likely to vote by mail – and it could take many days to tally these mail-in votes – while Republicans tend to vote in person.
Right, so when will we know the results of the US presidential election?
The short answer is that it really depends on the outcome. Say it’s an absolute blowout for one candidate or the other on the night, then it might become apparent quickly that one or the other has won. But there’s a very good chance that won’t happen, and for a range of reasons it could be weeks before the result is clear. This is all assuming that there aren’t legal challenges either, which will be covered in more depth below.
Who is doing the early voting?
Both major parties have encouraged their supporters to vote early if they can, which has pushed the early turnout up significantly. But there does appear to be a lead among Democrats. Analysis from Target Smart suggests about 49.5% of early votes have come from Democrats, compared to about 40.5% for Republicans – the rest have come from unaffiliated voters.
But that’s not necessarily the full picture of which early votes will matter most. In the so-called battleground states – 14 key states where the election will be won or lost – the analysis suggests Democrats lead Republicans by just 46% to 43.8% in early voting. This data is based on modelling of who the voters are, rather than formal registration, so aspects of it could be a bit fuzzy.
What about on-the-day voting?
This may end up favouring Donald Trump more – or at least, he appears to think it will benefit him more. At a recent press conference, he said “it would be very very proper and very nice if a winner were declared on November 3rd, instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate and I don’t believe that that’s by our laws.” That last bit isn’t true, and it’s normal to wait weeks for results, but it underscores the fact that the votes cast and counted on the day won’t necessarily give the full picture of the result.
Why do only certain states matter for the presidential election?
Presidents aren’t elected through the popular vote – rather, they’re elected through a system called the Electoral College. Each state has a certain number of votes, which are (in most cases) then allocated to candidates on a winner takes all basis, based on the statewide vote.
It means that there can be quite a wide gap between the popular vote winner and the Electoral College winner, and in recent elections Democrats have almost always won the popular vote, based on high turnout in very safe states like California. For example, in 2016, Hillary Clinton won almost 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, but lost the Electoral College, and therefore the presidency.
In the 2020 contest, the key states to watch will be Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, Minnesota, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina. And even among those, some states are more important than others. Texas and Florida have 38 and 29 of the total 538 Electoral College votes respectively, and while they would generally lean Republicans, there is a chance Joe Biden could win there. For Biden, the big risk would be in losing Pennsylvania, reports election prediction site FiveThirtyEight.
What are the polls currently saying?
The nationwide polls are currently projecting a massive popular vote lead for Biden, but again, that doesn’t mean a lot. Many polls were wrong in 2016, and these popular vote polls don’t tell us anything about the key state races.
On current poll averages, Biden has a big lead in Nevada, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Biden has a comparatively smaller lead in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. He and Trump are basically neck and neck in Georgia, Iowa and Texas. Among those swing states, Trump is currently ahead only in Ohio.
So if that polling holds, Biden wins, even if Trump wins all the toss-up states. But if Trump also sweeps the states Biden has a small lead in, and wins some of the states that Biden currently has a big poll lead in – a big ask, admittedly – he’ll end up winning the election.
What about legal challenges?
Here we get into extremely difficult territory. As the 2000 election showed, when the Supreme Court stepped in to halt a Florida recount that could have given Al Gore the presidency, legal means can be used to effects that are difficult to predict.
Legal chicanery has already taken place in a bewildering array of courts and states, with process fights being seen as a key mechanism for turning the election one way or another. Among those fights: some courts have been hearing cases about whether signatures have to match exactly between the voter registration and the ballot, while others have been hearing cases on whether ballots must be dropped off at official election offices.
The big Trump card in it all will be whether a crucial case ends up going all the way to the Supreme Court after November 3. The 9-member court is now heavily tilted towards justices appointed by Republicans.
What about voter suppression?
An ugly aspect of American democracy is the many mechanisms in place that throw up barriers against voting, particularly targeted against poor people and ethnic minorities. For example, analysis by Vice News shows that there will be 20,000 fewer polling places in 2020 compared to 2016. Some of the reasons for that are fair enough – far more mail-in voting has been made available to compensate for polling places being removed due to Covid risk. But in other cases, that’s not the case, and the consolidation of polling stations means “the people most likely to be impacted by this are disproportionately Black and Hispanic people, who statistically are less likely to have access to a car”. Other mechanisms used in the US that result in voter suppression include laws against convicted felons voting, voter ID laws, and underinvestment in election facilities in poorer inner city areas.
When does the next president get sworn into office?
One way or another, the next president will be sworn in on January 20. Probably.