More than 90 million Americans have already voted in this year’s presidential election.
As more of them head to the polls on Nov. 3 for what is set to be the one of the most controversial election days in US history, voters can expect one of several distinct outcomes, all of which have serious implications for American democracy.
But first, a small primer. The winner of the US presidential election isn’t the candidate that gets the most votes but rather the one who gets more than half of electoral college votes. The electoral college is currently made up of 538 electors representing 50 states and the District of Columbia (DC). They pledge to vote for the candidate who carried their state and in some cases are bound to do it by state law. Each of the states (plus DC) gets as many electors as it has members of Congress and that leads to disparities; Texas, for example, has 38 votes to Wyoming’s three. In most states, the winner of the popular vote earns all of that state’s electoral votes; so if Democratic nominee Joe Biden carries Texas, he will pick up 38 electors.
Now, onto our question: What will happen on election day 2020? Quartz has outlined some scenarios:
While it’s unlikely that either candidate will earn the 270 electoral college votes required to win on election night, it’s not impossible. And even if that doesn’t happen, the polling outfit FiveThirtyEight reckons voters could have “a pretty good idea of who won” by midnight eastern time.
Biden has a clearer path to those 270 votes than incumbent president Donald Trump. By 11 pm, according to FiveThirtyEight, if Biden wins all the solid-blue states as well as the close races of Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, and Arizona he would win the election outright. (FiveThirtyEight has Biden’s overall chance of winning the election at 90%.) But as pollster Nate Silver emphasizes, Trump could very well win. “Trump might be the underdog, but bigger polling errors have happened in the past, and there’s a difference between a 10% chance of winning and a 0% chance,” he writes.
The more likely scenario is that Biden picks up all the solid-blue states that are called early in the night and a handful of the swing states but not enough to get him over that 270 bar. The big unknown elements here are mail-in ballots, which are expected to favor Biden.
Georgia’s secretary of state Brad Raffensperger said that “for the races that are very, very close, we believe that we’ll have [the results] by Wednesday or Thursday at the latest.” But it’s also possible that Georgia will declare the results on Nov. 3 “if the margin of the winner’s victory is above 1 percentage point,” writes Paul Blumenthal in HuffPost.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania election law means the all-important state can’t start counting ballots until the morning of election day. And the US Supreme Court recently ruled it must count ballots received via mail until 5 pm on Friday (Nov. 6)—as long as they’re postmarked by election day. Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar recently said “the overwhelming majority” of Pennsylvania’s votes will be counted by Friday.
Other swing states like Florida are likely to declare the winner on Nov. 3 and those results will hint at the fate of the race even if neither candidate has reached 270 electoral college votes by midnight, according to FiveThirtyEight analyst Nathaniel Rakich. “States like Florida where we think we’ll get results quickly but where both candidates have a shot will be strong indicators of who is on track to win.”
The possibility that this election day won’t yield a clear winner is keeping activists and politicos up at night.
In June this year, the Transition Integrity Project (pdf)—a group launched in 2019 by two academics concerned that the Trump administration “may seek to manipulate, ignore, undermine, or disrupt the 2020 presidential election and transition process”—gamed out the possible outcomes of the election in a series of “crisis scenario planning exercises.” Their conclusions were “alarming.”
“We face a period of contestation stretching from the first day a ballot is cast in mid-September until Jan. 20,” the group wrote in its report. “The winner may not, and we assess likely will not, be known on election night as officials count mail-in ballots. This period of uncertainty provides opportunities for an unscrupulous candidate to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process and to set up an unprecedented assault on the outcome.”
Both campaigns have teams of lawyers ready to deploy anywhere in the country should there be incidents on election day and afterwards. There are two categories of “incidents” that could take place: the normal kind and the manufactured kind. As Michael Harriot writes in The Root, incidents “always happen. It’s mathematically impossible for hundreds of thousands of different voting systems, software, and precincts operated by fallible human beings to all work perfectly.”
But then there are also possible instances of violence, voter suppression, or voter intimidation stemming from president Trump’s rhetoric about the deep state, his encouragement of far-right groups like the Proud Boys, and his insistence that if he doesn’t win this election it’ll be because of widespread voter fraud (which is, of course, not true). There’s also a risk of foreign interference in the election via online disinformation campaigns, for example.
If races are close and there are major issues with uncounted mail-in ballots, it could lead to a nightmarish few months of legal challenges and uncertainty reminiscent of the 2000 Bush v Gore showdown—except this time, it’s not certain the loser would concede. Still, there are a few set-in-stone constitutional deadlines to keep in mind.
However, as Barton Gellman reports for The Atlantic:
“Trump’s state and national legal teams are already laying the groundwork for post-election maneuvers that would circumvent the results of the vote count in battleground states. Ambiguities in the constitution and logic bombs in the Electoral Count Act make it possible to extend the dispute all the way to inauguration day. The Twentieth Amendment is crystal clear that the president’s term in office ‘shall end’ at noon on Jan. 20, but two men could show up to be sworn in. One of them would arrive with all the tools and power of the presidency already in hand.”
If that happens the US would be plunged into a constitutional crisis, writes Gellman. “We have no precedent or procedure to end this election if Biden seems to carry the electoral college but Trump refuses to concede. We will have to invent one.”