The winner of the U.S. presidential election may not be known on Election Night, Five Thirty Eight reported. The election will take place on Tuesday, but mail-in ballots and each state’s different rules for counting votes may dash hopes for a quick return of numbers. The Electoral College is integral in the process.
According to Five Thirty Eight, Americans who stay up to watch the election results pour in may be disappointed. “There’s a good chance we won’t know who won the presidential election on election night,” the article said. “More people than ever are voting by mail this year due to the pandemic, and mail ballots take longer to count than ballots cast at polling places. But because each state has its own rules for how votes are counted and reported, some will report results sooner than others.”
Adding to the confusion, the article said that mail-in votes are overwhelmingly cast by Democrats; so if a state counts mail-in ballots early, it may seem as though the state will lean towards former Vice President Joe Biden only to shift towards the incumbent, President Donald Trump, later on, as in-person votes are tallied. The opposite may hold true for states that count mail-in votes later.
Why is the election so complex? The Electoral College may hold the answer.
Establishing the Electoral College
The Electoral College separates American elections from most other nations. It was established by the framers of the Constitution amid debate over how much power to give the government.
“Some of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted to give the role of selecting the president to the elected members of Congress, not to citizens who could steer the fledgling country in the wrong direction,” said Dr. Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Associate Professor of Political Science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
“Other delegates argued that the new government was conceived as a democracy, so the people should directly decide who the president would be. The compromise they devised was the Electoral College—a group of electors selected neither by Congress nor elected by the people but appointed by the states.”
Dr. Victor explained that each state has its own number of electors to send to the Electoral College, and that number is equal to the number of representatives that the state has in the Senate plus the House of Representatives.
Selecting the President
The Constitution doesn’t explicitly state how electors should be chosen, so the major political parties in each state select their electors; who then pledge to cast their vote for the candidate that wins the most votes in that state.
“In 48 states, and the District of Columbia, states use a winner-take-all system [of electoral votes],” Dr. Victor said. “In other words, whichever presidential candidate wins the most votes in a state is allocated all of the electors from that state. However, two states, Maine and Nebraska, allocate one elector to the candidate that won the most votes in each congressional district, and two at-large electors based on who won the overall state-wide popular vote.”
The candidate that wins at least 270 electoral votes—of which there are 538 total—wins the presidential election regardless of which candidate secures the most popular votes.
However, the winner of the election isn’t officially certified until the Electoral College casts its votes in December, which leaves time for polling places to count the popular votes and for absentee and mail-in ballots to be tallied.
When it comes to the U.S. presidential election, patience is key.
Dr. Jennifer Nicoll Victor contributed to this article. Dr. Victor is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. She holds a PhD in Political Science from Washington University in St. Louis.