The 2020 US presidential election will quasi-officially come to an end on Monday, December 14, when members of the Electoral College in all 50 states and Washington, DC, formally cast their votes to declare Joseph R. Biden Jr the next president of the United States.
After a prolonged post-election period marked by a flurry of legal challenges launched by President Donald Trump’s team at both the state and federal levels, Joe Biden’s presidential win takes another step toward becoming official when every state plus the District of Colombia certify their results on Monday.
US voters do not directly cast their votes for president but rather, under the Electoral College system, they choose the electors who will then vote for the president. According to the US Constitution, these electors – 538 in total – must meet to cast their votes “on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December next following their appointment” in the November presidential election.
All states except two, Maine and Nebraska, use a winner-take-all system that calls for the candidate who garners the most votes to take all of the state’s electoral college votes. And while electors are not bound by federal law to vote for whoever won the popular vote, it is only rarely that electors choose another candidate – and such “faithless electors” have never altered the outcome of an election.
Each state officially certifies its results according to their own timelines. But last Tuesday, December 8, marked the “Safe Harbor” deadline – the date on which results that have already been certified by states become final and must be accepted by Congress. Every state except Wisconsin (where multiple Trump lawsuits were pending) met the Safe Harbor deadline, which occurs six days before the electors meet.
By the end of the day on December 14, all 50 states and Washington, DC, are expected to have made their election results official, awarding 306 electoral votes to Biden and 232 to Trump.
A final challenge?
Following the December 14 certification, the electoral votes will be sent to the Capitol. On January 6, Vice President Mike Pence will preside over a joint session of Congress to read aloud the certificates cast by electors to finalize the vote. If no members of Congress object in writing, the Senate certifies the election of the president-elect and vice president-elect.
But some Trump allies have indicated their intention to challenge the electoral vote count. Both a member of the House and a member of the Senate would have to challenge a state’s electors – at that point, both houses of Congress would debate whether to accept the votes submitted by that state’s electors.
For many, the Electoral College system seems needlessly complicated. For others, its lack of direct representation renders elections less democratic and unrepresentative of the people’s will. Five times in US history – including in 2000 and 2016 – the candidate who won the popular vote did not go on to win the presidency.
But barring a final “Hail Mary” challenge from the Republicans, December 14 marks a last hurdle for certifying the election, making it likely that the era of Donald Trump will end as expected at midday on January 20, 2021, when Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.