#4ThePeople: When do election results become official? Why has the media called it already?
National news networks have declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 Presidential Election—but what comes next?
PolitiFact released a comprehensive report addressing this very question.
If you’re short on time:
- The media calling the election has no legal weight, but helps inform public perception; many candidates use this to declare victory or to concede.
- The actual election results are finished up December 8, giving candidates time to have recounts or litigate the numbers.
- After this, it falls to the electoral college to vote on December 14, with certificates sent to Congress for a special session — where the sitting vice president officially declares a winner.
Media calling the election
Firstly, it’s important to know what happens when the media ‘calls’ an election—what does that mean and how does that happen?
It has no legal effect on the electoral race; it is simply the best estimation of the networks’ data-crunchers. Their ‘decision desks’ tally up the votes that have been counted and what’s left to count. Typically, the race will reach a point where one (or several) candidates effectively have no way to make up the gap in votes, based on those still left to count.
Of course, some races are just too close to call—like the race for majority in the Senate, or even the presidential election in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina; the latter two still have not been called despite Biden already being projected to win the overall race.
Despite the media’s call having no legal weight, it still colors public perception of the race and usually prompts candidates to declare victory or concede, respectively, which further shapes public perception.
For instance, if an incumbent is likely to be ousted—as is poised to happen this election cycle—the call could accelerate the transition process, according to PolitiFact.
Official election results
This may be all well and good, but when will we know the actual election results? Federal law allows states over a month to finalize their counts. This year, that deadline—also known as a ‘safe harbor’ date—is December 8.
The deadline gives elections offices time to make sure all the provisional ballots are valid. Additionally, many overseas military ballots are given a grace period to arrive late.
By December 8, Congress pledges to not dispute the election results if the states finish tallying everything up—but PolitiFact notes that there is a bit of legal ambiguity there.
Candidates trailing behind can also request recounts, though if the margin isn’t close enough for an official, automatic state-funded recount, that candidate will have to pay for it themselves. They can also take the issue to court to challenge election results in certain states. The Trump campaign has already done all of the above to battle the results.
The coming weeks of this election cycle will involve finalizing ballot counts, running recounts and court litigation.
The electoral college vote
Once the election results are finalized, it falls to states to choose their electors for the electoral college. On December 14, the electors will cast their votes for president and vice president.
Six certificates are signed and sealed by the electors—one is sent to Congress, two to the Secretary of State in their state, two to the National Archives and one to the court of the district the electors assembled in. If those certificates are not received by December 23, the sitting vice president or the archivist of the U.S. can get an original copy from the district judge. Failure to do so nets a $1,000 fine.
The electoral college has come under more scrutiny in recent years, namely due to ‘faithless electors’—electors who vote for someone other than the candidate their state voted for.
There is precedent for this, too. In 2016, two Texas electors did not vote for Donald Trump and four Washington state electors did not vote for Hillary Clinton. PolitiFact says that despite this, it has never been enough to shift the result of an election.
This election cycle, the Supreme Court opted to allow states to have more leverage in making their electors cast their assigned votes.
Electoral results and inauguration
Congress will call a joint session on January 6, where they will officially count the electoral votes. The president of the Senate—a position held by the sitting vice president—presides over the session. Electoral certificates are unsealed and counted in alphabetical order, with lawmakers able to make objections.
The vice president will declare a winner, which will officially decide the election.
At noon on January 20, the incumbent president’s term expires and the winning candidate is sworn in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol.
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