Any minute now, the media could declare a winner in the cliffhanger race between President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden, seemingly rescuing the country from electoral purgatory. But that won’t quite be the end of it.
Behind the scenes, several steps will follow before the new president can take office, a civics process many of us learned in social studies class but have long since forgotten. And in close elections like this one, where recounts and lawsuits will come into play, there could well be bumps in the road.
The vote count that drives the headlines comes from unofficial results released to the media by state and local elections officials. Once the votes are in, it will take weeks for states to double-check them, said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Hubert H. Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota.
“They’re going to account for every ballot, and ensure that each valid vote was included and no invalid votes were included," Jacobs said. “Discrepancies will be resolved. There will be errors. Usually they’re not large. Those will be corrected and they will take remedial action.”
The process, which election officials call “canvassing,” happens at both the local and state level, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It’s a detailed, painstaking process involving a “massive amount of material and documentation," Jacobs said.
“It’s like going back over your math homework to show your teacher what you did,” he said. “It’s an enormous amount of work and done in a very short period of time. This is how it’s always done, and this is why elections are clean.”
The next step is official certification of the results, a process that varies from state to state. Certification can first be done at the local level but is always done by the state’s chief election official, the state board of elections, or some other entity, the NCSL says.
In Massachusetts, Secretary of State William F. Galvin said local communities send certified results to him for another round of certification. He then presents them to Governor Charlie Baker and the Governor’s Council for a final approval.
“It’s all usually routine,” Galvin said. “Until you have a challenge or a close election."
The time between the tallying of votes and final state certification is when things can get tricky. That’s when the contestants in the election can request a recount, as Trump seems likely to do in some key battleground states. The laws governing recounts vary from state to state, but it’s usually allowed — and sometimes required — if the final margin appears to be under 1 percent. A handful of states offer no recount process at all, according to the NCSL.
This is also the time when legal challenges can be mounted. The Trump campaign is already proceeding quickly on both fronts — filing lawsuits and likely calling for a recount — with unclear prospects for success.
Even after a state has certified its vote, there’s one more step: the casting of Electoral College votes.
Members of the Electoral College meet in their respective states and the District of Columbia on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December — this year, Dec. 14 — and cast their votes for president. The candidate who receives a majority of the 538 electoral votes, 270 or greater, will become the next president.
“The absolutes of this process are: It has to be on Dec. 14, and it has to be 270,” Galvin said.
While those who cast their ballots Election Day believe they are voting directly for president, they actually are choosing a slate of electors from the party whose nominee carries the state.
Each state receives two votes for its two senators, and one additional vote for each of its members in the House of Representatives. Electors generally are leaders in their parties.
But there’s a twist. Neither the US Constitution nor federal law requires electors to follow the results of the popular vote in their states, according to the National Archives website.
In Massachusetts, for example, the state’s 11 electors will be registered Democrats who previously pledged to vote for Biden if he won here, which he did. Traditionally, virtually all electors have voted as they had pledged, and Congress counts their votes in early January.
However, on occasion, “faithless electors” have sometimes bucked their party’s wishes.
In the 2016 election, a total of 10 electors defected or attempted to defect. However, only two moved from Trump’s column, far short of the 37 needed to erase his electoral majority that year and throw the selection of a president to the House of Representatives.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that states can enact requirements on how their electors vote. Kermit Roosevelt, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said he does not envision any defections this year.
“Usually, these are party officials, and it’s unlikely that any Democrat or Republican party official will cross lines,” the professor said.
Some states require electors to vote for the candidate who won the state’s popular vote; other electors make pledges to their party to vote for its nominee.
Still, there is a simpler way, Roosevelt and others said.
"If we were using a national popular vote, this wouldn’t be close,” he said of this year’s race. By Thursday afternoon, as ballots continued to be counted — and an anxious nation waited for the media to call the race — Biden had received about 4 million more votes than Trump.