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US Presidential Polls 2020: Why we're unlikely to know the winner on election night

Counting of mailed ballots is more laborious. While some states are counting ballots as they come in, others have laws that forbid processing mail ballots until election day. That's going to delay the result.

October 29, 2020 / 02:19 PM IST
Image: AP Photo/Matt York

Image: AP Photo/Matt York

Barack Obama’s historic election as the United States president in 2008, his re-election in 2012 and the then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s shock defeat to Donald Trump in 2016 had one thing in common — the outcome of the presidential race was clear on the election night.

Unlike in India where there are a few days between the last phase of polling in the general election and the counting day, votes in the United States are counted on election day as soon as the polling process concludes. Thus, in most cases, the winner is known within a few hours or by dawn the next day.

However, we may not see that this time. The novel coronavirus pandemic has forced people to take precautions while voting. Thus, political parties — and especially the Joe Biden campaign — have encouraged voters to vote early and use postal ballots. This would help them avoid queues on November 3 — the election day.

Why the result could be delayed

Counting of mailed ballots is more laborious than in-person votes. Thus, the process is expected to take more time. And those mail-in ballots are not marginal. According to the US Elections Project, 76.5 million early votes — including that of President Donald Trump — have been cast as of October 29. Of these, 50.7 million are mail ballots. But at least 41 million ballots (which have been sought by voters) are yet to come in. Many of these are expected to be delivered to authorities over the next few days.


According to The Associated Press, an estimated 1.9 million ballots were still outstanding in Florida, along with 962,000 in Nevada, 850,000 in Michigan and 1 million in Pennsylvania. In most states, the deadline for ballots to be received is November 3.

Officials in some battleground states have warned that it may take many days to count the votes due to the surge of ballots sent by mail. In some states, the ballots can be accepted several days after election day, as long as they are postmarked before polls closed.

While some states are counting the ballots as they come in, others — notably Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — have laws that forbid processing mail ballots until election day. Both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are critical battlegrounds.

Trump has repeatedly raised unsubstantiated concerns of fraud involving mail-in voting. While there is most likely to be a delay, it does not mean the results would be fraudulent.

These events are unprecedented. A presidential election result has not been contested since 2000 — when counting problems in Florida led to month-long legal battles. The tussle between George W. Bush and Al Gore led to the controversial 5–4 US Supreme Court ruling which ended the recount, leading Bush to win the crucial state of Florida by just 537 votes. This, in turn helped Bush clinch 271 electoral votes — one more than the majority mark.

Legal battles like 2000?

Experts suggest there could be several election-related cases spring up due to the counting delay. These may include emergency petitions on extending deadlines for counting absentee ballots. The top court may have to immediately weigh in on them.

Perhaps, this is why it was so important for Trump and Republicans to make sure their pick Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice as soon as possible.

What awaits us after the result

Trump has declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he thinks the result is fraudulent. Additionally, he has proposed mobilising troops under the 200-year-old Insurrection Act to put down unrest if he won. "Look, it’s called insurrection. We just send them in and we do it very easy," Trump told Fox News in September.

While courts can block a president’s use of force, they have historically been reluctant to second-guess such military declarations.

But the process should be wrapped up soon. Members of the Electoral College will cast their ballots for president on December 14. Under the US system, the winner of each state's popular vote earns that state's electoral votes, which are apportioned by population. The candidate with a majority of the 538 electoral votes available wins the presidency.

The US Congress will meet on January 6, 2021, to count the electoral votes and formally declare a winner.

Follow Moneycontrol’s full coverage of the 2020 US presidential elections here
Moneycontrol News
first published: Oct 29, 2020 02:19 pm
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