Although November 3, 2020 is "Election Day," Election Day is a relative term.  More than two-thirds of states conduct some form of early voting, and for the 2016 general election more than 41 percent of all votes were cast before Election Day. 

Early and Absentee Voting Are Widespread

Although the United States lays claim to being the world's greatest democracy, we can do better in the area of voter participation; in recent presidential elections turnout has been about 60 percent and among some demographic groups it lags significantly.  While he number of votes cast in 2016 was a record, the turnout rate was off from the record set in 2008.

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission's 2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey (PDF, +), "140,114,502 citizens...voted in the 2016 General Election, representing a national turnout rate of 63 percent of the Citizen Voting Age Population."  Meanwhile, the U.S. Elections Project estimated the total ballots counted in the November 2016 General Election at 138,846,571 for a turnout rate (total ballots/voting eligible population) of 60.2 percent.  In any discussion of voter turnout or participation one must be mindful that a) states tally and report votes in different ways and b) there are different measures of turnout.  In calculating turnout, he numerator could be total ballots cast, total ballots counted, or vote for highest office, and the denominator could be number of registered voters, voting eligible population or voting age population (>). 

In recent decades many states have sought to make it easier for citizens to register and vote through such measures as same day registration and early voting.  According to the EAC Survey for the 2016 election more than 41 percent of all votes were cast before Election Day comprising 17 percent in person and 24 percent by mail.  Early voting, which started in Texas in 1991 (>), has now spread to 39 states and DC (1, 2, 3, 4).  These include three states that are using vote by mail (vote at home); Oregon started using vote-by-mail in 2000, Colorado and Washington have since taken it up, and several other states are transitioning to it (>). 

Early voting has significant ramifications on campaigns' get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.  Campaigns encourage supporters to vote early as a way of banking votes, so that on Election Day itself they have fewer people to keep track of.

Keeping Our Democracy Running Smoothly

Russian interference in the 2016 election cast a spotlight on the integrity of our voting processes (+), but external attacks are just one challenge our democracy faces.  In his 2012 book The Voting Wars, Richard Hasen recounts how, "Since the Florida debacle we have witnessed a partisan war over election rules."  Republicans frame the issue as fighting voter fraud, while Democrats say what is actually happening is voter suppression, particularly aimed at members of minority groups.  Additionally, voting systems are aging and will need to be replaced, and there is always the challenge of finding and training poll workers.  After Democrats reclaimed control of the House in the 2018 midterm election, their first major piece of legislation of the 116th Congress, the "For the People Act of 2019" (H.R.1), contained provisions addressing many of these issues.

Russian meddling, from hacking of emails to cyberattacks on voting systems to spreading of false news, is aimed at undermining Americans' trust and confidence in the system.  Entities from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to secretaries of state to local election officials to social media companies are working to counter the threat, but these attacks are expected to continue in 2020.

The general trend has been to make it easier for citizens to register and vote, but there have at the same time in some states been efforts to restrict voting through measures such as purges of voter rolls, strict voter ID laws and cuts to early voting.  Indeed the Brennan Center for Justice reports that 25 states have adopted more restrictions on voting since the 2010 elections (1, 2).  The U.S. Supreme Court's June 25, 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder undercut protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and efforts by congressional Democrats to pass a new Voting Rights Act have not succeeded.  The war over election laws and rules is seemingly never ending; as of Mar. 2019 the Brennan Center showed ongoing litigation against voter restrictions in 17 states (>).  In election years the legal wrangling inevitably assumes a higher profile.

While voter rolls need to be maintained and updated (+), one concern is "exact match" rules that can lead to rejection or removal of individuals from the rolls for tiny discrepancies (+).  In an Aug. 2016 article in Rolling Stone headlined "The GOP's Stealth War Against Voters," investigative reporter Greg Palast described how a number of Secretaries of State use a program called Crosscheck to identify "potential duplicate" voters; he argued "the Crosscheck list disproportionately threatens solid Democratic constituencies (>)."  The EAC's 2016 Survey reported that, "The number of registrants removed from registration rolls between 2014 and 2016 was 1.9 million greater than in the same period leading to the 2014 Federal Election (i.e., 2012 – 2014), a 12.8 percent increase."

Strict voter ID laws have been particularly contentious.  As of Jan 2019, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported seven states have strict photo ID requirements and another three have strict non-photo ID requirements (>).  There is a lot of litigation in this area.  For example, on Oct. 9, 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up an emergency appeal to a North Dakota law requiring voter IDs with a street address, a measure seen as likely to disenfranchise Native Americans in rural areas.  In New Hampshire, in Feb. 2019 the ACLU filed suit against a law which requires students to obtain a New Hampshire driver's license to vote (+).  

Although the U.S. Department of Justice aims "to ensure all qualified voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots and have their votes counted free of discrimination, intimidation or fraud in the election process (+)," civil rights groups are at the forefront of  protecting voting rights (+, [PDF]).

Many other issues affect elections.  Each year legislatures around the country consider a range of election-related legislation (>).  Amazingly, so many years after the 2000 Florida debacle and passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) (+), the possibility of incorrect election outcomes remains.  Among the areas of concern are shortages of poll workers (>), worn equipment, issues with provisional and absentee ballots, military voting and overseas voting.  The Jan. 2014 report of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration stated, "By the end of the decade, a large share of the nation’s voting machines, bought 10 years ago with HAVA funds, will reach the end of their natural life and require replacement."  Equipment failure did not seem to be a problem in 2016, however.

On Election Day itself and in the days leading up to it, partisan and independent observers, federal observers, and international observers of varying stripes mobilize to ensure that voters' rights are protected and their intentions heard.
See: 2016 (1, 2), 2012 (1, 2, 3, 4[PDF], 5) and 2008 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Election Night: Unofficial Results, Exit Polls...Showtime

Election night coverage and the multi-page spreads in the newspaper the next morning are the culmination of months of preparation and planning.  Two key components of the coverage are exit polls and unofficial election night vote results.  Through 2016, the National Election Pool, comprised of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, FOX News, NBC News and AP, provided exit poll results based on polling done by Edison Research, while AP provided unofficial results.  For 2020 there will be two sources of exit poll data and unofficial results.  In April 2017 FOX News left the National Election Pool, and AP left later in 2017.  AP is offering AP VoteCast, which debuted in the Nov. 2018 election.

Edison Research
"The definitive source for accurate, timely and comprehensive election data: Exit Polls, Vote Count, Election Projections, Delegate Estimates..."
AP VoteCast
"It's not an exit poll...  AP VoteCast is the new standard in election research, specifically designed to overcome the bias and inaccuracies inherent in the in-person exit poll..."

Exit polls are based on surveys of voters in randomly selected precincts as they leave polling places.  They provide a window on the concerns of voters and useful information on variations in voting behavior by gender, race, age, education, income and other factors (>).  

From 1988 to 2002 exit polls were overseen by Voter News Service (initially called Voter Research and Surveys), an entity formed by the networks and the Associated Press.  After poor performance in the 2000 and 2002 general elections, the partners disbanded VNS, and a new cooperative, The National Election Pool, comprised of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, FOX News, NBC News and the Associated Press, formed. 

A Nov. 10, 2016 blog posting by Edison gives a sense of the resources required:

"A staff of over 3,000 exit poll interviewers, precinct vote return reporters, call center workers, and analysts all across the country helped us provide the sole record of who voted, and why. We collected, processed, and analyzed over 100,000 interviews in a 17-hour period to not only create that record, but also to provide the NEP with the guidance to make the right projections for their viewers and readers (+)."

The second important element of election night coverage is the collection, tabulation and distribution unofficial election night vote results for presidential, Senate, House and gubernatorial races.  The Associated Press long fulfiled this role, providing in 2016:

"the results for nearly 7,000 races, 4,700 of which are contested and will be tabulated, tallying the vote to elect the president, Congress and governors, plus state and some regional and local races. Its tabulation of results is used by almost every major news organization in the United States, plus numerous international clients (+)."

For news organizations, when everything works, election night is as good as it gets, a chance to show what they can do.  Anchors man elaborate sets, correspondents around the country file reports, and, as the evening progresses, states are called one way or another and the map begins to fill in with red and blue. 
[News Organizations Cover Election Day 2016]

Defeat...And Victory

After last-ditch campaign swings, the candidates head to their home states.  Typically on the morning of Election Day they vote, and photos and video of those scenes go out to the world.  Hillary and Bill Clinton voted at Douglas G. Grafflin Elementary School in Chappaqua.  Donald Trump, accompanied by his wife Melania and daughter Ivanka, voted at Public School 59 in Manhattan.

In 2016 the expectation among most pundits was that Clinton would win, although talk of a blowout win had faded following FBI Director Comey's letter.  There remained the possibility of considerable "silent support" for Trump that the polls were not catching, but very few pundits believed Trump could win.  Indeed Trump's statements in the closing weeks of the campaign that the election was "rigged" raised concerns about what he and his supporters might do.  There was also the possibility or a disputed election, which would have extended an already too-long election even further (+). 

The Clinton campaign played up early voting results and predicted record turnout would benefit their candidate (+).  The Latino vote in particular was seen as a key to her success.

But on Election Night it was Trump, who had confounded prognosticators throughout the primaries, who achieved a stunning upset.  Both campaigns' supporters  were gathered in New York City, Clinton at the Javits Center and Trump at the Hilton.  During the long night, as state after state was called by news organizations, Clinton's path to 270 electoral votes narrowed, until finally calls in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin gave the race to Trump.  Around 2 a.m. Clinton campaign chairman Tony Podesta came out on the stage at the Javits Center and told deflated Clinton supporters that the campaign would wait until every vote was counted.  Around 2:30 a.m. Clinton called Trump to concede.  Gov. Mike Pence and family came on stage at the Hilton around 2:45 a.m. and introduced Trump, who delivered his victory speech (+).  Late in the morning Clinton delivered her concession speech to a smaller group of staff and supporters in the ballroom of the New Yorker Hotel (+).

The Morning After...What Does It Mean?

There is always the possibility that the outcome will not be known on Election Night.  That was not the case on Nov. 6, 2018 when Trump carried states with enough electoral votes to be declared the winner.  However, several states remained too close too call on Election Night.  New Hampshire was called for Clinton on Nov. 14 and Michigan was finally called for Trump on Nov. 24.

The days after the election are peak season for pundits as they assess, analyze, discuss and debate the meaning of the results.  Various interest groups offer their own post-election assessments, often using the opportunity to point to the impact their constituency had on the outcome and to stress their key issues. 
[Reactions 2016


Trump carried 30 states totaling 306 electoral votes to 20 states and DC totaling 232 electoral votes for Clinton.  Although Trump won the battle for electoral votes, Clinton finished ahead in the popular vote.  This was a sensitive point for Trump, who tweeted on Nov. 15, "If the election were based on total popular vote I would have campaigned in N.Y. Florida and California and won even bigger and more easily."  On Nov. 27 he went even further, tweeting, "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."2  And on Dec. 21 he tweeted, "Campaigning to win the Electoral College is much more difficult & sophisticated than the popular vote. Hillary focused on the wrong states!"  When all the votes were tallied, over 137.0 million votes were cast in the presidential election; Trump won just under 63.0 million (46.0%) (+), Clinton 65.8 million (48.0%), Johnson 4.5 million (3.3%), Stein 1.5 million (1.1%) and others 2.2 million (1.6%).
[See also: David Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, Federal Election Commission, Mark Newman-cartograms]

Voter Turnout in Recent Presidential Elections
Year Voting Eligible Population Highest Office Total Turnout Highest Office
Turnout Rate
Total Ballots Counted Turnout Rate
212,720,027 131,304,731 132,588,514 61.7
2004 203,483,455 122,294,978 123,535,883
60.1 60.7
2000 194,331,436 105,375,486 107,390,107
54.2 55.3
1996 186,347,044 96,262,935 -
51.7 -
1992 179,675,523 104,405,155 -
58.1 -
1988 173,579,281 91,594,691 -
52.8 -
1984 167,701,904 92,652,680 -
55.2 -
1980 155,635,102 86,515,221 -
54.2 -

Source: United States Elections Project by Dr. Michael McDonald.  Use of voting eligible population is a refinement on the old measures which used voting age population; the concept removes non-citizens and ineligible felons from the equation.

Election Day: Take 2...The Electoral College

As you will recall from high school, the president is not selected by direct popular vote, but by intermediaries known as electors.  The electoral system is outlined in the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1804 (this significantly modified the original provisions contained in Article II).  Each state has a number of electors equal to its number of congressmen and Senators.  The District of Columbia has three electors, bringing the total to 538.  Most states use a winner-take-all rule; all the state's electors go to the winner of the popular vote in the state.  The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, which distribute the electors by congressional district.  Twenty-nine states and DC have statutes requiring electors to vote for the popular vote winner in the state.  There is always the possibility of faithless electors, and there was a lot of talk about this following the contentious Nov. 8, 2016 election (+). 

Electors are generally party activists.  Some months before the election each party puts together a slate of electors, chosen by congressional district with the exception of the two at-large Senate slots.  If the party's presidential candidate wins the popular vote in the state on Election Day, the members of his or her slate are officially appointed as electors; if not they stay home. 

The law governing electors and the counting of the electoral votes is 3 U.S.C.§§1-21.  Electors meet in ceremonies in each of the state capitols and in the District of Columbia on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December (Dec. 14, 2020).  The electors sign the certificates of vote—actually they sign six copies of the document so there are back-ups.  There are separate votes for president and for vice president.  Each state sends one copy of the certificate of vote to the Office of the President of the United States Senate.  

In early January 2021 in a special joint session of Congress these envelopes are opened and tallied and the election certified.  In the Jan. 2017 joint session, several members of the House sought to raise objections during the tally, but Vice President Biden, presiding, ruled in each instance that, "The objection cannot be received without a signature from a Senator (>)."  The final tally was Trump 304, Clinton 227, and seven for others; the Vice Presidential vote went Pence 205, Kaine 227, and six for others.

Electoral College Comes Under Increasing Criticism

Over the years there have been many, many efforts to abolish the Electoral College and establish direct popular vote.  These efforts have gained momentum following the 2016 election when Trump won despite obtaining 2.8 million fewer votes.  In the first part of 2019 quite a few of the Democratic presidential candidates have thrown their support behind the idea.  Additionally in the 116th Congress, Democrats have introduced three resolutions proposing constitutional amendments to achieve that aim.  On the other side there is a Republican resolution "recognizing the value and importance of the Electoral College" (+).  The constitutional amendment route stands almost no chance of succeeding.

More promising is National Popular Vote's effort to bring about change through the states.  The premise is a compact or "Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote" which would take effect once states totalling 270 electoral votes have enacted it.  National Popular Vote started in 2006.  On April 3, 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) signed the National Popular Vote bill into law bringing the total to "15 jurisdictions totaling 189 electoral votes" (+).

Over the years a number of states have seen attempts to move away from winner-take-all distribution of electors.  In 2004 Colorado voters rejected an initiative which would have distributed electors proportionally according to popular vote in the state.  An effort in California in 2007 to put an initiative on the June 2008 ballot to award electors by congressional district failed to qualify.  More recently Republican legislators sought to alter allocation of electors in several big states that typically have supported the Democratic candidate for president. (see NCSL database).

Election Day Take 3: Lessons

Each election is unique and produces a set of lessons and areas that need improvement.  Over the months and years that follow, as new research and accounts are published a more complete and nuanced understanding of what happened develops. 

A major lesson of 2016 is that campaigns and observers must be careful to avoid getting caught up in conventional wisdom.  The Clinton campaign was confident of victory heading into Election Day, speaking of a "Clinton Coalition," and the vast majority of pundits and observers foresaw a Clinton victory.  It did not happen.  The Trump campaign showed that it is possible to win despite being significantly outspent on the airwaves and out-organized on the ground.  [Analysis]

Another very clear lesson from 2016 is that much work needs to be done on election integrity and infrastructure.  Russia's multifaceted meddling in the 2016 campaign, and the prospect of more such activity, is particularly worrisome.  In terms of election infrastructure, it might be time for a federal investment in voting equipment and election security, similar to the Help America Vote Act following the 2000 debacle in Florida.  [Russian Interference | Election Integrity]