Americans process Joe Biden’s victory

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Joe Biden became the presumptive next president late Saturday morning, after a count of ballots in Pennsylvania showed him with an insurmountable lead in the critical battleground state, according to the Associated Press.

Though media organizations have projected a Biden victory, the election doesn’t become official until after several key steps are taken by the states and Congress. Here are the key dates to watch for on the road to a Joe Biden inauguration on Jan. 20:

Recounts

Given the small margin of victory Biden won in several states, expect the Trump campaign to request a recounting of ballots in those jurisdictions. The Secretary of State of Georgia has already said there will be a recount of votes in his state, where Biden leads by roughly 7,000 votes, or 0.1%.

The Trump campaign has already announced its intention to request a recount in Wisconsin, where he has roughly 21,000 fewer votes than Biden, or 0.6%, and Michigan, where he has about 146,000 fewer votes, or a 2.7% margin.

Recounts are very unlikely to overturn the results of statewide contests, according to a Nov. 4 report by FairVote, non-partisan, nonprofit organization focused on electoral reforms, including ranked choice voting. 

“Our key finding is that recounts rarely change the outcome of the race, and margins tend to be exceptionally close in order for a change in outcome to be plausible,” wrote Deb Otis, senior research analyst at FairVote.

“In the 5,778 statewide elections over the last 20 years, there have been 31 completed statewide recounts,” she added. “Only three of those 31 recounts overturned the outcome of the race. In all three, the original margin of victory was less than 0.05%.”

Certification by the States

A presidential election in the U.S. is not just one contest, but fifty individual races conducted by individual states. State election laws dictate different dates by which officials must certify results, beginning next week, though some states may not official certify results until early December.

The lag between Election Day and the deadline for certification gives states more time to make a complete tally of votes, and is particularly useful in 2020 given the large number of ballots cast by mail — which in many states are allowed to reach election offices for days or weeks after Election Day — as long as they were sent by the official close of polls.

Typically the final tally of votes is not important for a presidential race, because margins of victory are wide enough that laggard votes don’t make a difference to the outcome. Georgia and North Carolina, however, are still close enough this year that the AP has yet to project a winner.

Lawsuits

The Trump campaign has filed or has promised to file several lawsuits in federal and state courts across the nation. Experts say some of these cases may have merit. For example, there is a legal battle over the constitutionality of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to allow mailed ballots to be counted up to three days after Election Day, if they were sent by Election Day.

While it may be that federal courts end up overruling that decision, there are not enough such ballots to change the outcome of the election, according to Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State.

The Trump campaign has filed several other lawsuit alleging election fraud, on the basis that Republican election observers were not allowed to stand close enough to election workers to effectively root out any alleged misconduct.

In a press conference Saturday, former New York City Mayor and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said he would be bringing lawsuits in states across the country, starting Monday, to that effect.

But several such suits in Michigan and Georgia have already been thrown out of court. “A bald complaint about something is not the same as a viable legal claim that will produce results in court,” Kim Wehle, professor of law at the University of Baltimore wrote Friday in the Atlantic.

Electoral College

Once lawsuits are worked through the system and states officially certify votes, the results will be sent to the Archivist of the United States, and on Dec. 14, the electors chosen by states will hold a largely ceremonial vote in their individual states.

“The role of presidential electors has been widely debated,” wrote Thomas H. Neal, specialist in American government, in a report to the Congressional Research Service last month . “Some observers claim they are free agents, while others maintain they must vote for the candidates to whom they are pledged, although this is not required by the Constitution.”

While many states by law require electors to vote as the results of the state election dictate, in some years, there have been so-called “faithless electors” who cast their vote against the will of the voters. In 2016, five Hillary Clinton electors voted for someone else and two Donald Trump electors did the same.

But never have faithless electors changed the actual outcome of an election.

Congress Declares the New President

On Jan. 6, 2021, the newly elected Congress will meet in a joint session to officially count the electoral votes and declare the next President of the United States.

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