US Election 2020: How The American Presidential Election Works
It’s Election Night, with Donald Trump and Joe Biden warring for the White House – but how does it all work?
Today, November 3, millions across the US have been venturing out to the polls. Due to the current pandemic, extra measures were put in place for early voting and mail-in ballots, with more than 102 million people casting their votes prior to Election Day – according to the US Elections Project, this is around 72.8% of the total votes cast in 2016.
Yes, Americans are voting for the next president – with 35 Senate seats and 435 seats in the House of Representatives also up for grabs – but the voting system isn’t as simple as a victory for whoever amasses the most votes.
Upon casting their ballots, US citizens weren’t strictly voting for Trump, Biden or another candidate. They’re actually voting for chosen officials who represent the Electoral College, a body of people who elect the president.
Each state has a minimum of three electors, based on population and its number of lawmakers in Congress. California has the most electors at 55.
Let’s say one candidate wins the most votes in Florida. Regardless of whether they win by 0.1%, 10% or even 40%, the candidate with the majority receives all of the Electoral College votes for the state – a winner-takes-all approach, basically. In Florida, a key battleground state, there are 29 votes available.
An elector almost always backs the candidate emerging atop the popular vote, with some states having legislation making it a mandatory requirement. In states which don’t oblige this, some electors have been known to back a different candidate – these electors are known as ‘faithless’.
This excludes Maine and Nebraska, where electoral votes are split by the statewide popular vote – the percentage of voters in favour of a candidate – and the respective winners in congressional districts.
Across the entirety of the US, there are 538 Electoral College votes. In order to win the presidency, a candidate must secure 270 votes. In 2016, Trump won by 306 votes, to Hillary Clinton’s 232.
This introduces a scenario where a candidate could receive the most votes nationwide, but still lose the presidency.
In fact, it’s happened a number of times, as recent as 2016. Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million votes, but still lost to Trump as he achieved the Electoral College majority.
In the rare situation that both Biden and Trump finish with 269 votes, Congress will decide who goes to the White House in a contingent election, with a January 20, 2021 deadline. This also applies if neither can acquire 270 votes.
Under the Presidential Succession Act, if Congress still hasn’t determined a presidential or vice presidential winner by then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would serve as acting president. There’s only been three contingent elections in history: 1800, 1824 and 1836.
It’s a controversial system, dating back to conception of the US Constitution – a September 2020 Gallup poll found 61% of US adult respondents in favour of abolishing the current system, with 38% voting to keep it.
So let’s say Trump wins the presidential election. On January 20, 2021, he’d attend his inauguration for a second term. If he loses, he’d become a ‘lame duck’ president, serving out the 73 days left in his term before conceding the presidency to Biden.
However, Trump has criticised the prevalence of mail-in voting and the possibility of not accepting the election result. Trump earlier said: ‘We’re going to have to see what happens. You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.’
Pelosi earlier told NPR: ‘We’re ready. We’re prepared. We’ve been ready for a while because we see this irresponsibility of the president, his disrespect for the Constitution, for our democracy and for the integrity of our elections. So, we’re ready for him.’
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