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Sunday, March 7, 2021

America’s Elections – How do they work and when do we know who won?

Today, on the eve of what many hope will be the announcement of the next U.S. President, the world holds its breath in anticipation.

Over the past number of days both the Trump and Biden campaigns have blitzed swing states along the Midwest and Southeast in attempts to sway voters in their direction.

National opinion polls paint a bleak picture for President Trump, but a closer look at the race in swing states show that Former Vice-President Biden’s lead may not be as solid as it appears, with him in front by only 1.2, 0.6 and 0.1 percentage points in Iowa, Ohio and Georgia respectively.

Regardless of who is currently in the lead however, history has taught us that opinion polls, despite whatever improvements have been made on them since 2016, cannot be trusted.

Amplifying this is the fact that, depending on what state an individual is registered to vote in, mail-in ballots may or may not be counted depending on whether or not the state has decided to count only votes that arrive on or before the 3rd, or votes that are postmarked by the 3rd and arrive in the days after that.

What this means is that not only is it possible that the presidential winner will not be announced on election day, but given the large number of mail-in votes as a result of the current pandemic, it is incredible likely that this will be the case.

It is important to note that this late declaration of a winner is not an issue, and the winner does not have to be announced on election day as President Trump wishes. This is because federal law allows states more than a month after election to finalise results before the casting of electoral college votes, per the state’s own policies.

Key to understanding the U.S. election is the fact that each state has a set number of electoral college votes. For example, if Joe Biden wins 100% of the popular vote in California then he naturally gets all of the state’s 55 electoral college votes. However if Trump wins the popular vote in Florida and Texas by getting 50.1% to Biden’s 49.9% for example, he wins the total available 29 and 38 electoral college votes respectively. This is how a candidate can win the popular vote but lose the election, as we saw with Hillary Clinton four years ago.

It is precisely because of this system that the two election campaigns have focussed on swing states over the last few days, as they hope to turn the college vote in their favour, more or less ignoring the likes of California and Utah for example which always vote Democrat and Republican respectively. It is also part of the reason why national polls are misleading and we are better served making predictions off of key individual states.

Up until this year Texas had also been a Republican stronghold but is now seen as a key swing state, albeit still tipped in President Trump’s favour. Maine and Nebraska are the only two states that divide up electoral college votes based on proportion of the popular vote rather than giving them all to a marginal winner. Given that they are only worth a combined 9 electoral votes however, their seemingly fairer system is somewhat inconsequential.

It is important to understand that the U.S. Presidential winner is never officially announced on election day, the electoral college does not even cast their votes until mid-December and on January 6 the Vice President opens the state votes alphabetically and tellers then announce the results.

What usually happens, as it did in 2016, is after the popular vote is counted the media declares a winner based off an accurate projection of votes as a candidate meets the 270 out of 538 electoral college votes necessary to win. The projected loser then usually concedes the election and up until the 6th of January the Presidential winner is essentially guaranteed but still, technically, provisional.

However, given the bitterness of the two rivals in this years election, the likelihood of either conceding a day after the popular count is incredibly slim, but that is not to say that we will have to wait months for a provisional result, it is still possible that the winner could be decided on election day.

The general consensus among experts and amateurs alike is that we won’t know tomorrow, despite both parties seemingly hoping in favour of a quick outcome, a swift end to the tension would certainly be appreciated.

For now, we must wait patiently and in a day’s time we will, I hope, be better informed on our speculation.


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