When will we know the 2020 US election result?

Harriet Alexander
·9 min read
<p>Voters making their selections this morning at the Oak Park Community Center Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Oak Park, Mich. (Clarence Tabb, Jr./Detroit News via AP)</p> (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Voters making their selections this morning at the Oak Park Community Center Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Oak Park, Mich. (Clarence Tabb, Jr./Detroit News via AP)

(Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The night of Tuesday 3 November was always going to be memorable, with those who love Donald Trump and those who hate him glued to their television sets.

But it has now become apparent that this will really be an election unlike any ever before because we will not know the results for some time.

Why are there delays to the election result announcement?

The 2016 election was called for Trump at about 02:30 EST (07:30 GMT) after victory in Wisconsin put him over the 270 electoral votes needed. 

This year is proving very different.

An unprecedented number of Americans - 97.1 million by the last day of campaigning on Monday, well over twice the number from 2016 - have voted by mail in response to coronavirus concerns and some states are counting ballots delivered after the election (so long as they are postmarked ahead of a given deadline).

In Washington state, for example, mail-in ballots can still be counted until 23 November. In Alaska, state officials don’t even begin counting mail-in ballots until around 10 November.

Those two states are relatively unimportant for the final result in the presidential race as Washington is strongly Democrat and Alaska fairly solidly Republican, meaning neither is likely to upset the applecart.

Follow live: 2020 election results, updates and analysis

However, swing states have also faced challenges reporting quickly due to the unprecdented influx of postal votes.

In Pennsylvania - key for both Mr Biden and Mr Trump - mail-in ballots can be counted three days after the polls close, following a battle that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. 

Mr Trump’s campaign has prematurely declared victory in the state and also filed a suit in the Supreme Court asking for the remaining ballots not to be counted.

Read more: Which US election states will be next to declare a result?

The campaign said that it was suing to temporarily stop the vote count in the Keystone State, citing a lack of “transparency” in the counting process.  

Justin Clark, Trump's deputy campaign manager, said the campaign is “suing to stop Democrat election officials from hiding the ballot counting and processing from our Republican poll observers.”

He said the campaign wants "to temporarily halt counting until there is meaningful transparency and Republicans can ensure all counting is done above board and by the law."

What have Trump and Biden said?

Both candidates were well aware of the fact that there might be delays.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden will likely not know who will reside in the White House until several days after the November 3 voteAP
Donald Trump and Joe Biden will likely not know who will reside in the White House until several days after the November 3 voteAP

Mr Biden was urged by Hillary Clinton not to concede on election night "under any circumstances because I think this is going to drag out" and he has said that he will only accept “the full results”.

On election night, Mr Biden told his supporters to “keep the faith” and urged them to “be patient” as the counting continued.

He spent the evening watching the returns come in from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, then drove downtown by motorcade to make his statement outside the Chase Center.

He told a gathering of supporters that his hopes for victory remain high despite the uncertainty and cautioned them that it could take a day or longer to know who had won.

He told them: “Your patience is commendable.”

On Wednesday, Mr Biden urged the counting of all votes.

"Here, the people rule. Power can't be taken or asserted. It flows from the people," he said. "And it's their will that determines who will be president of the United States and their will alone. And now after a long night of counting, it's clear that we are winning enough states to reach 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.”

Mr Trump took matters a step further, saying the process was “a major fraud on our nation.”

He cast the night as a disenfranchisement of his voters and said: “We will win this and as far as I’m concerned we already have won it… We’ll be going to the US Supreme Court - we want all voting to stop.” 

In fact, there is no more voting - just counting.

Mr Trump had repeatedly stated that he might not accept the results at all. He is doing his utmost to warn of voter fraud and election rigging - something that experts say is extremely rare - and without offering hard evidence himself. 

The Brennan Center for Justice says rates for voter fraud in elections it had studied ranged from 0.0003 per cent to 0.0025 per cent.

Read more: 2020 election odds: Here’s the latest predictions for Trump v Biden

“We have to prepare for the very strong probability that an election unlike any other we’ve ever had might take a little longer to accurately count with integrity,” said David Becker, executive director and founder of the Washington DC-based non-partisan Center for Election Innovation & Research. 

“More time being taken to report results is not an indication of a problem.”

When will the election be over?

Pennsylvania, Nevada, North Carolina and Georgia are among the key states yet to declare their results. 

Arizona was declared a win for Mr Biden by both AP and Fox News, but the lead has diminished as more votes come in - a warning sign the state could still be in play. 

Pennsylvania is pushing ahead despite Team Trump’s objections and is expected to deliver a result on Friday. 

The secretary of state, Kathy Boockvar, said on Thursday evening that election officials were on the “home stretch” in terms of counting. More than 95 per cent of votes have been counted.

“The overwhelming majority of ballots will be counted by Friday - we actually have counted the overwhelming majority of ballots, but because it’s a close race, it’s not quite clear yet,” Ms Boockvar said.

The Georgia vote also looks close to completion, with President Trump ahead by just 700 ballots with 98 per cent of the count finished as of Friday morning.

With 95 per cent of votes counted in North Carolina, Mr Trump is on 50 per cent and Mr Biden just behind on 48.6 per cent.

An estimated 84 per cent of the Nevada vote has been counted, though uncounted ballots have continued to arrive. At the time of writing, Mr Biden is ahead by 0.9 points with a margin of 11,438.

The primaries earlier this year actually gave us some indication of how this might all play out.

By 17 March, almost half of all states, 24, had held primaries. Five of those states heavily used vote-by-mail, as they had in previous elections. They reported their results in an average of 6.4 days, according to data analysed by The Washington Post.

The other 19 had mainly in-person voting and reported results on average after 15 hours.

After 17 March, when the pandemic forced significant adjustments to voting systems, there were primaries in 23 more states, which took an average of four days to report nearly complete results. Nearly all of these states had traditionally relied on in-person voting.

New York processed 94 per cent of its votes within a few hours of polls closing. But counting the final six per cent of votes took more than 10 days and one race in particular - for the congressional seat held by long-term congresswoman Carolyn Maloney - took six weeks to be resolved.

That suggested from the start that it could take several days for the results to be clear, and, if both candidates accept the result, the matter will be solved.

What happens if Trump or Biden don’t accept the election result?

If either candidate is still not satisfied, a recount could be demanded.

In 2018, in Florida, a recount was demanded for three statewide races - for senator, governor and agriculture commissioner.

The machine recount was ordered on 10 November, with a deadline set for 8pm on 15 November. 

That was still inconclusive, in the senate race, so Florida ordered its first ever recount by hand.

That was completed on 18 November and officially approved on 20 November - two weeks to the day after the 6 November vote.

But even a recount result may be unlikely to resolve the issue: Mr Trump has said he believes the election result could end up in the Supreme Court.

What would the Supreme Court involvement be?

This has happened before. In the 2000 election, Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, argued that his narrow margin of defeat in Florida should lead to a recount.

It took 36 days and the Supreme Court to decide against a recount to settle the contest in favour of Republican George W Bush. He, like Trump, had lost the popular vote.

Various legal challenges could emerge this year - everything from the identification requirements for postal voting to the legality of Covid-related changes to voting.

Is there a ‘hard deadline’ to all this?

Inauguration Day - always 20 January, or 21 January if that first date falls on a Sunday - is set by the Constitution under the 20th Amendment, enacted in 1933.

Read more: How many US presidents have lost a second term?

Prior to  that, the “lame duck” period stretched on until March and caused untold problems. 

In the "secession winter" after the election of Abraham Lincoln, 15th president James Buchanan sat back and watched as secessionists seized federal forts and arsenals.  By March 1861, when Lincoln finally took office, the Civil War was almost lost before it had even begun.  

And, in the midst of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover’s lame duck period dragged on interminably and frustrated the public. In response, the 20th Amendment was proposed and adopted.

So 20 January 2021 is therefore considered the ultimate hard deadline. 

And if there are still problems?

If the election result is not confirmed and accepted by then, the United States will be plunged into a deeply partisan constitutional crisis and we enter the realm of the unknown.