How does the US 2020 election work? Everything you need to know

Andrew Naughtie
·6-min read
 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

Will Donald Trump get another four years in the White House, and if not, how exactly will he be denied them? That question has been in the air more or less since the president’s inauguration in 2017 – and now, with Joe Biden leading him solidly in both swing state and national polls, the answer will soon be revealed.

Here’s what you need to know about the election’s home stretch.

When does the election happen?

It’s already happening. Millions of Americans have already voted early, with many states already seeing record-breaking early turnout – both in person and by mail.

Postal voting is the norm in many parts of the country, some states using it exclusively, but it has been made far more accessible in many states this year because of the risks of voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic.

Read more: How to vote by mail in the 2020 US election

Mr Trump and many of his allies have for months insisted that postal voting is highly susceptible to tampering and fakery, and that Democrats have been encouraging it so as to steal the election. There is no evidence for this, but the president – who votes by mail himself – has continued to make false claims of widespread ballot fraud.

Which states matter most this year?

The battlefield across the country is exceptionally wide this year. Mr Trump secured his 2016 victory with a total of 107,000 votes spread across Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, giving Mr Biden three clear fronts on which to fight. If he holds every state Ms Clinton won, flipping these three would be enough.

However, more and more of the traditional swing states that Mr Trump have begun looking winnable for the Democrats, among them the electoral vote-rich Florida and North Carolina.

And most worryingly for Mr Trump, several longtime Republican strongholds are in Mr Biden’s sights: he is polling evenly with or ahead of Mr Trump in Arizona, Georgia and even Texas. Winning any of those would be an even more radical redrawing of the map than Mr Trump’s victory in 2016.

Read more: The swing states Trump and Biden need to win in the 2020 election

On the Republican side, the hope has been that Mr Trump will be able to cling to the bigger swing states while capturing a handful of others – among them Minnesota, New Hampshire and Nevada – to offset expected losses. However, the polling in those states shows them moving away from him if anything.

How does the Electoral College work?

The US does not elect its presidents by nationwide popular vote. Instead, each state sends a certain number of “electors” to the Electoral College, an arcane institution which meets after the election to formalise the result. There are 538 electoral votes overall; 535 from the states, and three from the District of Columbia.

Most states simply allocate their electors to the winner of their own popular vote, except for Nebraska and Maine, which give two electoral votes to the statewide winner while allocating one for the winner in each of their congressional districts. (In 2016, Hillary Clinton picked up three votes from Maine’s statewide vote and its first congressional district, while Donald Trump won the elector from the 2nd district.)

Read more: How many electors does it take to win?

It was this arithmetic that meant Ms Clinton lost the presidency despite winning the popular vote by nearly three million. By racking up huge margins in the states she won while losing to Mr Trump by ultra-thin margins in several key places, she suffered a clear Electoral College defeat.

What happens on the night?

Mr Trump has insisted that the American people “deserve” to know who has won the vote on election night, when the TV networks and news wire agencies traditionally make “calls” as to who has won each state and the overall electoral college tally.

However, the changes in states’ mail-in ballot rules this year raise the possibility that it could take days – or longer – to know which man has won, depending on which states are decided in which order.

Read more: ‘Election night will be a mirage’: Analysts warn Trump could appear to have won on election night, only for him to lose days later

Several key states have not only expanded mail-in balloting, but have also extended the deadline for postal ballots to arrive. The US Supreme Court recently ruled that Pennsylvania can count postal ballots received up to three days after the election provided they are postmarked 3 November or earlier – meaning that if the Keystone State is pivotal (as it was in 2016) the process could take far longer than usual.

What if Trump loses but won’t go?

Some have made doom-laden predictions that Mr Trump could lose the election but simply refuse to leave office. He himself has not said he would do this, but there are fears that his efforts to denigrate mail-in voting are intended to pave the way for disputing or even outright dismissing the result.

Assuming that he fails to stop the election results being certified and Mr Biden is declared the president-elect, Mr Trump’s term formally ends at noon on inauguration day on 20 January 2021 under the US Constitution’s 20th amendment.

Under normal circumstances, it would not be in Mr Trump’s gift to unilaterally dismiss the results. Depending on the legal challenges he and his allies launched, it would be up to state and federal authorities and the judiciary to decide how to proceed.

Asked what would happen if Mr Trump refused to leave the White House even then, Mr Biden predicted this summer that the military “will escort him from the White House with great dispatch”.

Yet there are also worries that Mr Trump could use the machinery of government to try and stay in power, whether by attempting to pass new laws or declaring some kind of state of emergency. These scenarios have little or no precedent.

Read more: Trump finally commits to peaceful transfer of power but refuses to condemn QAnon

What else is on the ballot?

Aside from the presidency, every seat in the House of Representatives and 35 seats in the Senate. Also up for election are 11 governors and myriad seats in state legislatures.

The Democrats currently hold the House, and have high hopes of taking the Senate – possibly with a healthy majority. Among the Republicans they hope to defeat are longtime senators in formerly safe seats, among them South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Maine’s Susan Collins.

If the Democrats win the House, the Senate and the presidency, they stand a chance of enacting a highly ambitious policy agenda. And if they take control of Congress while losing the White House to Mr Trump, they will at least be able to start blocking policies and government nominees they consider beyond the pale.

Beyond candidates, many states and cities will also vote on ballot initiatives to change local policies. The most intense of these contests is California’s Proposition 22, a measure that would exempt Uber, Lyft and other services from labour legislation classifying their workers as employees, with all the attendant rights.

Read more: Biden won’t just win the election but the Senate - here’s how