Here's everything you need to know about the US voting process

Is the process really as simple as counting the votes and announcing a winner?
Published October 29, 2020

The US presidential election this time has been marred by the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives in the country. As a result, an unprecedented number of Americans are opting for balloting via mail while data from the past few days shows many have also preferred in-person early voting.

Given this trend, the Pew Research Centre estimates much of the voting will already have happened before November 3.

And indeed, by Oct 28, with six days still left till polling, more than 70 million Americans – out of a total 150 million eligible voters – had cast ballots, a record-breaking pace that could lead to the highest voter turnout in over a century, according to data from the US Elections Project.

Recent data also suggests Democrats hold roughly a two-to-one advantage in early voting numbers but Republicans in recent weeks have narrowed the gap using early, in-person voting.

But does simply getting more votes guarantee an election victory? We explain.

Popular vote does not decide who wins

By law, election day has to be the first Tuesday of November in an election year. Surprisingly, however, as many found out in the last election, getting more votes does not mean a candidate has won the race.

And this is where the ever-elusive concept of the Electoral College comes into play.

To make it very clear, the Electoral College is a process – not an actual place.

To become president, what really counts is winning a majority of electoral votes. Each state has been allotted electoral votes based on the size of its population and whoever wins a particular state is expected to bag all the electoral votes allotted to that state.

There are 538 electoral votes in total which means that a candidate needs to secure 270 to win.

To put it simply, when the US public votes in the election, they are not voting for the president. Instead, they are voting for a group of people who will then choose the president and vice president.

The word “college” here simply refers to a group of people with a shared task, BBC says. The Electoral College meets every four years, a few weeks after election day, to carry out that task.

A breakdown of the Electoral Votes allocated to each state. — Photo courtesy
A breakdown of the Electoral Votes allocated to each state. — Photo courtesy

According to the Centre for American Progress, Washington’s leading liberal think tank, Hillary Clinton won the majority of the national popular vote in 2016. However, Trump carried 30 states and won the Electoral College vote with 304 in his favour, making him president for the next four years.

But just because a candidate wins a state, does not mean that the electors are bound to vote for him/her. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there is no federal law or constitutional provision requiring electors to vote for the party that nominated them.

Some states are more important than others

While most of the states in the US can be divided along political lines, there are a select few that “swing” between voting for Democrats or Republicans. These states are called swing states or battleground states since it is not clear, given recent history and perception polls, whether these states will vote blue or red this time around, which is why what happens in these states can heavily sway the outcome of the presidential race.

Naturally, candidates pour money and focus the entirety of their campaign on vying for votes in these crucial battlegrounds.

There are six “big” states that could make or break — depending on which side you are rooting for — the 2020 US presidential race; Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona. Together, all six states account for 101 electoral votes.

In September, NPR reported that the Biden campaign and supporting groups spent almost 90 per cent of their money in these states while Trump and Republican organisations spent 78 cents of every dollar across the six.

“These states are getting the lion’s share of the TV advertising money from the campaigns and outside groups supporting them,” the report says.

But why do these states matter so much? Well that’s because they are all medium to big — remember that electoral votes are assigned according to the population — and are an even mix when it comes to politics. A win, even by a small margin, can decide the end result.

Drawing another example from the 2016 US election, Trump bagged three of the six states mentioned above, namely Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. The consensus is that to secure his re-election, Trump will have to maintain his hold on swing states.

Is the election just about choosing a new president and VP?

The November election is not just about choosing a new president and vice president. It is also about choosing new members of Congress, the country’s legislative branch which consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The status of races for US Senate in 2020. — AP
The status of races for US Senate in 2020. — AP

Congressional elections take place once every two years; mid-term elections occur halfway between presidential elections. During these elections, the public votes for every member of the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate seats.

It is worth mentioning that the popular vote decides the winner of the congressional elections. The race is particularly important this year as the Democrats are gunning to regain control of the Senate, where the Republicans currently have a majority.

But why is this important to the US presidency?

That’s because the Senate plays a huge role in passing federal laws and shapes the presidency through its “advice and consent” role as some of the president’s decisions need Senate’s approval, Al Jazeera explains.

A recent example of this is the appointment of a Supreme Court justice when a vacancy falls. After liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death last month, Trump rushed for Amy Barrett – a conservative – to replace her on the top court and with the Republicans holding a majority in Senate, which has the power to approve her appointment, it was merely a formality.

Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called himself the “grim reaper” of socialist schemes and subsequently blocked legislation passed by the House Democrats. In February this year, he admitted that 395 bills sitting in the Senate were not going to be passed because of their “left-wing” solutions, according to Newsweek.

Therefore, both the Democrats and Republicans are vying not just for the presidency but also to take control of the Congress which will make it easier for them to implement their agendas.

What happens after the election?

Once the polls close, the arduous process of counting begins which is carried out by the states. Once the votes have been counted and the states have finalised their electors, the latter can cast their ballots for president.

In January, the new Congress is sworn in which then proceeds to count the electoral votes in order to formally announce a winner.

However, if neither candidate manages to secure a majority, the decision falls upon the House of Representatives while the Senate votes for the vice president.

The reason for laying out the entire process is that Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the November election. He has also said that the matter of the winner could end up in the Supreme Court, highlighting his doubt over mail-in voting, which has been more popular than ever due to the pandemic.

Whatever the end result is, Americans and the world will have to wait longer than November 3 to see what happens.

Compiled by Sana Chaudhry

Header illustration by Murtaza Ali