US elections: How to know if a presidential candidate claiming victory has actually won the election
- For months, President Donald Trump has been casting doubt on the integrity of the 2020 election and is even setting the stage to prematurely declare victory on election night, Axios reported on Sunday night.
- If you see a candidate declaring victory, look to trusted news sources like Decision Desk HQ, which Insider is partnering with this year, and other major networks for live and trustworthy election results.
- Also keep in mind that election results are never truly final on the night of the election. There are often mail and absentee ballots and always provisional ballots to be processed in every state after Election Day.
- Even if news outlets call the race for a given candidate, they're doing so based on a projection of who will win, not the finalized results. States have days to weeks to certify their presidential election results.
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For months, US President Donald Trump has been spreading misinformation that mail voting is fraudulent, casting doubt on the validity of ballots that arrive after Election Day in order to undermine the integrity of the November general election.
And as Axios and CNN reported on Sunday, he's now setting the stage to either prematurely declare victory on election night or refuse to concede.
However, there is no legal weight behind a candidate, including the president, declaring victory before races are formally called or refusing to concede. It also doesn't have any bearing on states' procedures for canvassing and certifying election results. While it's traditionally been the norm for losing candidates to concede an election if they lose, it's not required by law.
If you see a candidate declaring that they've won, look to trusted news outlets who, in the hours and days after the polls close, will be evaluating the data, posting live election results and vote counts, and projecting the winners of races, including the presidential election.
Twitter, where millions get their news, is taking steps to limit candidates and other possibly malicious actors from spreading misinformation by making premature declarations of victory. They will allow the accounts of the Associated Press, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Decision Desk HQ (which Insider is partnering with for live election results and race calls), Fox News, and NBC News to officially post formal race calls.
But keep in mind that even if a news outlet calls a race for a particular candidate, results aren't finalised on the night of the election. A majority of states, for example, allow mail-in and absentee ballots from domestic and/or military and overseas voters to arrive after Election Day.
And in every state, election officials must also adjudicate and count provisional ballots, which are cast by in-person voters whose registration or eligibility to vote is challenged. State laws explicitly allocate multiple days or weeks for officials to fully canvass and then certify the results.
When news networks and decision desks call races, they don't make those calls based on the final, certified outcome. Instead, they are making a projection of which candidate will win the final count and eventually be certified based on multiple factors, including initial results reported on election night and exit polling.
However, due to this year's high level of voter turnout and projected increase in mail ballots, which take longer to process and count than in-person votes, news networks will be extra cautious when it comes to calling races — especially where mail-in ballots are still outstanding.
In every election, including in 2016, many states ended up counting a substantial proportion of their ballots after Election Day, as this chart from MIT political science professor and election scholar Charles Stewart III shows.
Repeat after me: "All votes have never been counted on election night." These graphs show the number of votes that were counted and reported in 2016 after Wednesday morning following E-Day. Even "quick count" states had work to do. pic.twitter.com/3sSpbwNgkF— Charles Stewart III (@cstewartiii) October 29, 2020
The results of the presidential election will truly be final weeks later, once officials certify a winner and the electoral college votes in mid-December. Here's the rough timeline for how the process will work:
November: States appoint their electors, and officials canvass and count results following the schedule and procedures set in state law
States must appoint their electors to the electoral college on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November under a federal law passed by Congress in 1845.
Today, all states hold popular elections to determine how their electoral college votes will be allocated, but they aren't required to do so by the constitution or by federal law. For much of America's early history, legislatures directly voted on how to appoint their electors without any input from the voters.
During the canvassing process, canvassing boards, which are usually composed of county-level election officials, process, adjudicate, and count not just the votes of those who voted in person, but provisional ballots cast by in-person voters, and in many states, absentee and mail-in ballots from domestic, military, and overseas voters alike.
As this other chart from Stewart shows, every state's laws give election officials multiple days to canvass election results before certifying them.
—Charles Stewart III (@cstewartiii) August 25, 2020
December: The "safe harbor" deadline and meeting of electoral colleges
The "safe harbor" deadline is six days before the electoral colleges convene to vote is. This year, that's on December 8. While states aren't legally required to certify their results by this date, if they so do, they can avoid Congress getting involved to resolve a potential dispute over which candidate won a particular state's electoral college votes.
On the second Monday after the second Wednesday in December, electors convene in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to formally cast their votes for president and vice president.
In 2020, they will meet on December 14. They then send certificates of their vote to their state's chief election official, the National Archives, and Vice President Mike Pence, who is the current president of the Senate.
January: The vote count is finalised and a new president is inaugurated
In early January, the vice president will preside over a joint session of Congress to read aloud in alphabetical order the certificates cast by electors representing all 50 states and Washington, DC, in order to finalize the vote count. Once every state's electors are certified by Congress, the new president and vice president are sworn in at 12 p.m. on Inauguration Day, which is January 20, 2021.
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