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Explainer: The next US president may not be announced on election night as normal - here's why

Will the next president be decided on 3 November?

People queuing to cast their early ballots in Florida last week.
People queuing to cast their early ballots in Florida last week.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

THE US PRESIDENTIAL election is just over one week away, but the predicted winner may not be decided as quickly this year. 

There are many reasons for this, including the increase in mail-in ballots and the time it will take to count these. 

So… When will we have a final winner officially announced? 

Let’s take a look.

When do the results generally come out? 

US citizens vote for a new president every four years. Election day this year is on 3 November, but millions of votes have been already cast ahead of time through the post and in other ways. 

After polls close on election day, a prediction is generally made to decide which candidate – Republican or Democrat – has won in each state. 

As the voting night goes on, media outlets use these predictions to work out the overall result of the Electoral College vote.

Media outlets then declare an overall winner of the presidency after the popular vote is counted, usually on the night of the election or early the next morning. 

As a reminder, the winner is not decided through the popular vote, it is decided through the Electoral College. However, in most years, the candidate who wins the popular vote is elected as president.

There have been four exceptions to this, most recently in 2016 when Trump lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College vote.   

To win the presidency, a candidate must receive at least 270 elector votes – more than half of the total. 

The result decided by media soon after election day is still just a predicted outcome. 

Electors cast their actual votes in mid-December and the president is officially inaugurated at the end of January the following year.

In general, however, after the media predicts the winner of the Electoral College vote the losing candidate will concede the election ahead of these official votes.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton conceded the day after the election once media outlets declared Trump had exceeded the Electoral College vote threshold. 

In 2012, Mitt Romney conceded to Barack Obama in the early hours the day after election day.

As neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump seem prepared to give up the fight as quickly this year, in part due to the volume of mail-in ballots, the process will likely go on for a longer period than usual.

What is different this year? 

Professor of political science at Duke University, John Aldrich, told TheJournal.ie that “nobody knows for sure” how the election will play out, but a number of key issues are different than in previous years. 

An increase in mail-in voting largely due to the pandemic, Supreme Court cases and media calling the vote too early could all factor into deciding the winner this time around. 

“Each state handles elections in its own ways and voting in its own ways, and there are 50 different answers to try to address the pandemic and make it easier and safer to vote,” Aldrich said. 

So we don’t know how they’re going to play out because, first they’re brand new procedures and second, they have been done at more or less the last minute and they’re still being changed.

As of Friday, more than 50 million people in the US had voted early in the election, according to a group monitoring balloting. 

Voters are casting ballots ahead of time to try and avoid crowded polling centres and long lines out of fear of catching Covid-19. 

Aldrich added that in North Carolina at least, another issue driving numbers of mail-in ballots up is the “number of extremist groups who claim that they’re going to do something on the election day”.

“Here in North Carolina, we have a large African-American community,” he said.

“One of the reasons they’re doing so much mail voting is that they then don’t have to go to the voting booth and face any potential harassment that might happen.” 

“In the South, not recently but in the old South, that was very common and so there’s a memory of how awful things can be on election day, and better to avoid it if possible,” he said. 

The early voting tally by the US Elections Project, run by the University of Florida, said more than 35 million people have now voted by post and more than 15 million in person by leaving their ballots in designated drop boxes.

This already surpasses all 47 million votes cast early in the 2016 election, and there is still more than a week to go.

Early voting rules vary by state, Aldrich said. This will be key in determining any delays down the line in getting results. 

“A number of states [including North Carolina] can count mail-in and absentee ballots and do the counting before the election day itself, so that the election day will be spent mostly in counting their normal voting,” he said. 

“And we’ll be able to report, as we would on any normal election, but there are other places where mail-in ballots cannot be counted until at least five o’clock on election night.”

34 states cannot start counting their mail-in ballots until election day. Aldrich said it will take “more than an evening to count those, they will take several days”. 

This delay could have a significant impact on overall predictions for the winner if swing states are impacted. 

Aldrich said there are concerns this outcome could “change the Electoral College vote”. 

“There’s when we hit the really interesting problems,” he said. 

In the 2000 presidential election, the battle between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W Bush came down to the result in one state – Florida. 

The state’s Republican-controlled government declared Bush the winner on a miniscule vote margin. Gore’s side went to court for a recount of millions of punch-card ballots. 

The case escalated to the Supreme Court, which ruled against a recount, handing the election to Bush.

Is the result likely to go to the Supreme Court this year? 

Aldrich said it is possible that Supreme Court could be a factor in deciding this election.

“There’s the precedent of the 2000 election, in which the Supreme Court had to make the final call about the Florida election,” he said.

“We know already that the Republicans especially have challenged virtually every bit of electioneering and voting regulation that’s been proposed, so they’re set to try to challenge things. 

So we had to be prepared for a lot of court cases, whether they will reach the Supreme Court is questionable but possible.

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However, he added that even if the cases reach the Supreme Court, about the result or other voting issues, the court may not accept the case. 

“One of the options they have is to say the Court of Appeals, the court right below them, got it right and… [they] don’t have to decide this as it has already been decided correctly,” he said. 

He said this would be the preferred option for most due to the short time period between 3 November and electors casting their votes. 

“The electoral votes are supposed to be actually cast in December, so you have about a month to try to get to try to get any challenges underway,” he said, adding this could result in a “mad dash to the courtroom”. 

What are the current predictions? 

As of 23 October, Biden is in the lead in a national poll with 52% of the votes.  

Six states are considered crucial swing states in deciding the election: North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Based in North Carolina, Aldrich said that he is “reasonably confident” Biden will win. 

“But there’s enough grounds for uncertainty to say it’s no better than a 60/40 chance, maybe two-thirds one-third,” he said. 

There’s a lot of opportunity that it will turn out to be a Trump victory but much more likely, in my opinion, that it will be a Biden victory. 

How is the winner predicted on election night? 

Media outlets in the US compete to make the first call on the winner of the election, based on the release of state results. 

“Most of the time, everything’s fine and they get it right. But every once in a while, and the most important example was Florida in 2000 where they prematurely called it for George W Bush… then it went back into being too close to call,” Aldrich said. 

“But it is set a bunch of expectations in people’s heads that Bush already won it, and that was the decisive state.” 

Aldrich and other academics in the field signed a proposal published in the Guardian opinion section earlier this month to try and ensure media outlets did not call states prematurely in case it altered results. 

He said due to delayed results, there is a chance of that happening this year.

“One of the disadvantages of the new media is that a significant number of them are politicised, and so they will have political reasons pushing them also,” he added.  

Does it seem likely that either candidate will concede?

Trump has repeatedly refused to say whether he would conceded the position peacefully in the event of defeat in the presidential vote on 3 November. 

He has suggested that massive voter fraud involving the tens of millions of ballots sent by mail this year and early voting due to the coronavirus pandemic could prevent him from winning.

Biden has said he will respect the results “after all the ballots are counted.”

“That will be the end of it. And if it’s me, fine. If it’s not me, I will support the outcome,” he said.

With reporting by AFP

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