Election day is over, but the legal mechanisms that run from election day to inauguration day have only just begun.
Americans who voted on election day did not directly vote for the president. They technically voted for 538 voters, who will meet in their respective states according to the system set out in the constitution and will vote for President and Vice President once the population’s total vote is counted and confirmed.
These voters are collectively referred to as an electoral college, and their votes are then forwarded to the President of the Senate, who counts them in a joint congressional session after the New Year.
Here is a timeline of what happens before inauguration day and key dates to look out for:
Mail-in ballots were required to be postmarked by November 3rd in every US state, but many states can be late and still counted. In most cases, they had to be received within a day or two of election day. In Washington State, however, ballot papers could not be received until November 23.
Each state does it a bit differently, but from a week after election day, state governments began to confirm their election results. These deadlines can change in the event of a state recount if an extremely tight result is available.
Under the Electoral Census Act, this is the date by which states should have counted votes, resolved disputes, and determined the winner of their electoral college votes. The governors should issue a certificate of determination listing the election winner and electoral roll.
In 2000, the Florida Supreme Court ended a targeted recount in Florida as it had not been completed by that safe haven date. This recount would not have changed the election result, but a full nationwide recount could have made Al Gore president. At this point in time, it could become very important for Republicans to control more state law than Democrats, even in most of the contested battlefield states in 2020.
According to the law, this date is the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. This year it falls on December 14th. Six days after disputes are resolved, voters are expected to meet in their respective states and cast votes for the US president. They certify six votes and send them to Washington. Many states have laws that require their constituents to support their state’s electoral winner and can impose fines on faithless voters who go their own way.
Certified votes have nine days to get to Capitol Hill from their states.
Members of the House and new members of the Senate take the oath of office at noon. This is the official start of the 117th Congress.
Members of the House and Senate all meet in the Chamber of the House. The President of the Senate (that is, Vice President Mike Pence) chairs the session, and the votes are read and counted in alphabetical order by two candidates each from the House of Representatives and the Senate. They then pass their numbers on to Pence, who posts the results and listens to objections.
If there are objections, or if there are somehow multiple electoral rolls put forward by a state, the House and Senate look at them separately to determine how those votes should be counted.
There are 538 votes – one for each Congressman and Senator plus three for Washington, DC. If no candidate gets 270, the 435 members of the house will decide on the election. Every state gets a vote.
While there are more Democrats in the House, the Republicans now control more state delegations, so it is very likely that the House could vote for Donald Trump even though there is a Democratic majority. It requires a majority of the state votes to become president. The House has until January 20 at noon to elect the President. If that is not possible, it will be the vice-president or the next person eligible to succeed the president.
A new president takes the oath of office at noon. If the elected president dies between election day and the inauguration, the elected vice-president takes the oath of office and becomes president.
In a controversial election, if the House did not elect a president but the Senate did elect a vice president, the elected vice president becomes the incumbent president until the House makes an election. And if there is no elected president and elected vice president, the House appoints a president until one is elected.