The 2020 election season did not end when the polls closed on November 3. Election Day is simply the most visible moment in the months-long process to select the President of the United States.
When you cast your vote for president, you are not actually voting directly for that specific candidate. Rather, you are voting for the slate of electors already selected by that candidate’s political party. Together, the slates of electors chosen by voters in each state make up the Electoral College, which is the body established by Article II of the U.S. Constitution that ultimately elects the President and Vice President of the United States.
The Electoral College process is extensive and multi-faceted, but the three critical milestones taking place this December are (1) the Safe Harbor deadline, (2) the casting of electors’ votes, and (3) the deadline for receipt of these results by the President of the Senate.
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U.S. Code requires that states resolve all election-related disputes six days before electors cast their votes. States are expected to complete recounts, resolve any legal challenges, and certify results by this date, commonly known as the “Safe Harbor” deadline.
Typically, state governors also prepare Certificates of Ascertainment by this date, which include the names of electors, certified election results, and the state’s official seal. States are required to certify results and prepare Certificates of Ascertainment “as soon as practicable” after the election, but they must deliver the certificates to the U.S. Archivist and the state’s slate of electors no later than December 14.
If a state succeeds in meeting the Safe Harbor Deadline, their results are considered conclusive and legally binding when sent to Congress for counting.
U.S. Code dictates that electors shall meet and vote on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December of presidential election years. This year, that date falls on December 14. On this day electors meet in their respective states at a location, set by the state legislature (usually the state capital), and vote by paper ballot for President and Vice President.
After electors vote, they sign six “Certificates of the Vote,” each of which includes a list of votes for President and a list of votes for Vice President. Each Certificate of the Vote is then packaged together with a Certificate of Ascertainment. The resulting six official certificates are then distributed to the President of the Senate, the Archivist, and the state’s secretary of state and District Court judge.
The prospect of “faithless electors”—or electors who vote for someone other than their party’s nominee—has been a hotly debated topic. However, this only occurs on rare occasions and has never altered a presidential election outcome. Furthermore, 33 states and the District of Columbia require electors to vote for the candidate chosen by voters during the popular vote.
The aforementioned certificates—each including the names of electors, the electors’ votes, and the state’s certified election results—must be delivered to all relevant parties by the fourth Wednesday in December, or December 23 in 2020. Should the certificates not arrive by this date, the President of the Senate or U.S. Archivist shall request a copy “by the most expeditious method available” from the relevant state’s secretary of state.
After certificates are delivered on December 23, the electors’ job is complete. The final responsibility for electing the President then falls to the U.S. Congress. On January 6, 2021 at 1:00p.m. ET, the Senate and House of Representatives will meet in joint session to count the electors’ votes and declare the winners. Finally, on January 20, 2021, the President and Vice President named by Congress will be inaugurated—at last marking the end to a long and grueling election season.