Both candidates have been campaigning throughout 2020. As the election rapidly draws near, both have turned their focus toward swing states. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Mail-in ballots, transfer of power, COVID-19 vaccines: this is the new language of the 2020 presidential election. The onset of COVID-19 early this year changed the course of Trump’s presidency, introduced a new factor in the result of the election, and altered methods of voting. It has undeniably affected the election. The 2016 election was strange and unexpected, a seemingly abnormal election with a startling result. But now, in 2020, the nation is facing an election truly like no other.
What happens on Election Day?
Election Day is Tuesday, November 3. Voters who have not mailed in their ballots or voted early will cast their votes at polling stations throughout the nation. More than 60 million votes have already been cast ― already exceeding mail-in ballots in the 2016 election ― so while November 3 is Election Day, it’s not the only day to vote.
Typically, the winner of the election is announced at night on Election Day. Polling stations in different states close at different times, so votes are counted and reported state by state. The votes, according to the electoral college, are tallied up, and once it’s certain that one candidate has an unbeatable lead, their victory is called. The winner needs at least 270 electoral votes ― over 50 percent.
But this year is bound to look a little different. The waiting time between Election Day and the announcement of a winner is unpredictable, even though we’re only a few days away. An unprecedented number of votes were cast with absentee (mail-in) ballots, and it’s estimated that there will be 80 million mail-in votes total, more than double the mail-in ballots in the 2016 election. Beyond concerns involving the U.S. Postal Service, which had its funding cut by President Trump, absentee ballots take longer to count. Most states don’t start counting them until after polling stations have closed; in the 2016 election, it took more than a month to reach the final tally.
If either candidate ― Trump or Biden ― emerges with a clear lead, the results could be announced at night on Election Day or early the following day. A clear win would require attaining an undisputed 270 electoral votes.
It’s possible for Election Day to wrap up as it typically does. But the chance of that happening is unlikely. There are multiple factors suggesting that counting votes will take longer this year. Though polls show Biden in the lead, it’s still very viable for Trump to win a second term. It’s unclear what the result of the election will be, and that means there probably won’t be a clear winner on Election Day.
How long will it take to determine a winner?
The simple answer: we don’t know.
Washington state accepts mail-in ballots until November 23, and most other states accept mail-in ballots that are sent on or prior to November 3 ― even if absentee ballots arrive late, they can still be counted. After Election Day, each state is responsible for certifying the final tally, a process that takes weeks. On December 14, electoral votes are cast, and by December 23, they should arrive in D.C. This process continues into January. It’s not a special process created by the circumstances of this year’s election. On Election Day, the media calls in winners for states after determining they have an unbeatable lead, not after counting and verifying every single vote. Technically, until the electoral votes are counted on January 6, the results of Election Day are not official (though almost certainly correct).
This year, there are too many unreliable variables to determine an exact timeline for the election. The process of tallying votes could take days or weeks. We might have an idea about which candidate is in the lead, or we might not. We might know how many votes were cast in total, or we might not. If neither candidate achieves a decisive win on Election Day, we’re headed into a nebulous gray area of uncertainty and ambiguity.
And we’re not just considering the process of counting votes, either. The 2020 election is fraught with questions about voter suppression, voter fraud, and foreign influence. It’s a very real possibility that results will end up in the courtroom. This election is not just complicated because of the unique circumstances of a global pandemic, but because of the candidates involved, the nation’s heated polarization, and foreign threats that we’ve seen at work before.
Even without COVID-19 and the issue of mail-in ballots, the 2020 election has been contentious and dramatic from the beginning. How it plays out on and after November 3 relies on a myriad of factors.
Should we worry about voter fraud?
President Trump seems sure that an increase in mail-in ballots is sure to lead to voter fraud. He has continually expressed distrust that the votes will be tallied correctly. At the first presidential debate, Trump forecasted “fraud like you’ve never seen.” He also urged his supporters to go to polls to watch closely for voter fraud. Later, he and his supporters said that if a result is not released on Election Day or the day after, the election has been interfered with and is no longer fair.
However, it’s not illegal or unheard of for states to withhold tallies past Election Day. In the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush, results from Florida were suspended for 36 days while Gore fought for a recount. If states in the 2020 election are unable to report results within the first day after the election, it will be abnormal ― but not unprecedented. A lack of a clear winner on Election Day is not necessarily cause for alarm.
Furthermore, Trump’s claims that absentee voting will result in widespread voter fraud are unfounded. It’s true that voter fraud occurs more with mail-in ballots than with in-person voting. But it’s still rare, and has never interfered with an election enough to change the winner. Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, wrote in an op-ed on the Washington Post that for cases of voter fraud recorded in a databank, “the total number of cases was just 491 — during a period in which literally billions of votes were cast.” In other words, while Trump is partially correct that voter fraud occurs more often with absentee ballots, it still occurs on a miniscule scale and most likely will not affect the election.
Can the results be disputed in court?
In the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, results from Florida were taken to court. Other states were contested, and after Election Day, there was no clear winner. In Florida, the race narrowed to fewer than 600 votes, which triggered an automatic machine recount, according to Florida law. The machine recount concluded in Bush’s favor, but by a very small margin. Gore pushed for hand recounts. A flurry of legal chaos ensued, coupled with confusion about the validity of ballots. Manual recounts began in Florida, but Bush sued, and a few days later, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush, stopping the recounts. The decision ultimately led to Bush’s victory. Had the recounts continued, it’s possible that Gore could have been the 44th president.
Bush v. Gore is one instance of a contested presidential election. There are other examples: in 1800, candidates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes; in 1824, four candidates failed to reach a majority (Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, but ended up losing to John Quincy Adams).
It’s certainly not unprecedented for election results to be contested, but it’s also not typical. If votes are brought to court, they will most likely be over a swing state: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Ohio. These are the states whose electoral votes will determine the outcome of the election. If the margin between Trump and Biden is close, the results could be disputed in court.
The 2000 election was a contentious period in which both political parties and candidates fought legal battles to secure the outcome of the election. The Supreme Court's decision ultimately led to Bush's second term as president. (Elvert Barnes/Flickr)
What is a peaceful transfer of power?
A peaceful transfer of power means that whoever is vacating the presidency (in this case, Trump) gives up power voluntarily. In other words, they don’t try to hold onto power after losing.
Since the very first transfer of power in 1797, when John Adams succeeded George Washington, no president has ever refused a peaceful transfer of power. And though candidates have disputed results, conflicts have always been resolved through the law, not by force. Even though Gore disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2000 election, he accepted the results and conceded to Bush. There were legal battles and court cases, but in the end, Gore accepted the ruling of the Supreme Court.
Peaceful transition of power is considered a key part of democracy. Much of the framework of the Constitution and democratic government is built around minimizing the chances of a dictatorship and limiting those who are in power. Presidents have four year terms and a maximum two terms to limit their power and prevent them from becoming dictators. If a president refuses a peaceful transfer of power, they are ultimately standing against democracy.
In September, President Trump was asked by a reporter if he would agree to a peaceful transfer of power if the result of the election is not in his favor. In response, the president brought up fraudulent voting and mail-in ballots. His answer was not clear. Many have taken Trump’s lack of a clear affirmation to imply that he refused to agree to a peaceful transfer of power.
Former Vice President Biden condemned the president’s response. Hillary Clinton, the Democrat nominee in the 2016 election, urged Biden not to concede defeat to Trump, especially if the outcome is unclear following Election Day.
Mitt Romney, a Republican senator who has criticized Trump in the past, also condemned the president’s apparent refusal to agree to a peaceful transition of power. In a Tweet, Romney said that a peaceful transition of power is “fundamental to democracy” and it would be “unthinkable and unacceptable” for a president to refuse to step down in the case of defeat. Republicans Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Lindsey Graham said that, just like every other election, 2020 will end in a peaceful transition of power.
If President Trump refuses to a peaceful transfer of power, the implications remain uncertain. Realistically, even if Trump loses and refuses to leave the White House, he would simply be escorted off the premises as a trespasser. The January 20 inauguration automatically shifts power to the new president. How the public will respond is another question. In an election that is deeply polarizing, supporters of both candidates feel that defeat is unacceptable.
What should we be worried about?
Ultimately, what you should and should not be worried about is not for us to determine for you. Biden supporters are worried that Biden won’t win, and Trump supporters are worried that Trump won’t win. Some people are worried about mail-in voter fraud, and others are more worried about foreign hackers influencing the result. Depending on who you ask, the root issue of the election varies.
Many newspapers and media sites have expressed concern that a candidate will claim victory before the final outcome. Politico references a trend in which Republican votes tend to flood in at first, but are followed by a steady trickle of Democrat votes, citing concerns that President Trump will declare victory prematurely at the initial outpour of Republican votes, and then claim that less favorable results are fraudulent. A TIME article says that if Trump claims the election results to be illegitimate, the nation will be thrown into chaos and uncertainty.
Some sources say that we should be most worried about the social unrest that could be unleashed from either side in the event of defeat. Others zero in on the candidates themselves, asking whether they will fight the results, and how far they are willing to go to win.
The 2020 election is unique for a number of reasons. Even before the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on politics, the candidates, the issues, and the nation itself have grown more and more divided. The outcome of this election will determine more than who occupies the Oval Office or who gets to determine policy for the next four years.
The only thing we will tell you to be concerned about is whether you’re an informed citizen. What you do with the knowledge you’re armed with is up to you, but democracy depends on citizens fulfilling their civic duty by staying informed. The power to change the course of the 2020 presidential election rests in your hands, but only if you know the truth.
In 2016, both supporters and protesters of Trump voiced their approval or dissent through the media, without violence. This rally was at Costa Mesa, where both sides were present. (Jason Zeis/Unsplash)