Although November 3, 2020 was "Election Day," Election Day is a relative term.  More than 100 million votes were cast before November 3, including over 65 million by mail.  Overall turnout was the highest since 1900, and experts deemed the election "the most secure in American history."

Record Early and Mail Voting

Turnout in the 2020 election was the highest since 1900, about 66.7% or 160 million votes cast.  The pandemic significantly shaped the process of voting, prompting unprecedented numbers of people to vote early.  According to University of Florida Professor Michael McDonald, who runs U.S. Elections Project, 101.5 million early votes were cast, 35.8 million in-person and 65.6 million by mail (>).  By comparison, 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  started in Texas in 1991 (>), and has spread to most states (1, 2, 3, 4).  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. 

Expanding vote by mail was seen as a way to help citizens vote safely during the pandemic.  Before the pandemic five states voted entirely by mail (Oregon started using vote-by-mail in 2000, and Colorado, Hawaii, Utah and Washington subsequently adopted it).  For the Nov. 3 election five additional states mailed a ballot to every registered voter (California, Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey and Vermont).  However, President Trump and the RNC took a strong stance against universal vote by mail, arguing that it would open the door to vote fraud.  Seemingly every aspect of vote by mail was litigated from use of drop boxes to ballot receipt deadlines.  Fortunately, many states were able to work out and improve procedures for vote by mail during their primaries.  The Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project documented over 300 cases of COVID-related election litigation, many related to vote by mail (>).  The Brennan Center for Justice reported voting rights litigation in 40 states in 2020 (>).  The U.S. had not seen such an abundance of election related litigation since Bush v. Gore in 2000.

Keeping Our Democracy Running Smoothly

Although the United States lays claim to being the world's greatest democracy, there are always challenges and room for improvement.

Russian interference in the 2016 election cast a spotlight on the integrity of our voting processes.  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 worked to counter the threat, but there was evidence that foreign interference continued in 2020.

External attacks are just one challenge our democracy faces.  The pandemic posed great challenges to election officials as they worked to ensure people's right to vote safely.  As more people turned to vote by mail, changes at the U.S. Postal Service raised concerns about domestic interference; the USPS stepped up its game and added resources to meet the challenge (+). 

In his 2020 book Election Meltdown, election law expert Rick Hasen writes, "The synergy of... four factors—voter suppression, pockets of incompetence, foreign and domestic dirty tricks, and incendiary rhetoric—undermines public trust in the fairness and accuracy of American elections and creates high risks for the 2020 elections and beyond."  At the center of what Hasen terms a "partisan war over election rules" are Republican-backed measures ostensibly advanced to fight voter fraud, which Democrats say are actually designed to suppress the vote, particularly among members of minority groups.  Other challenges include aging voting systems and 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 to address many of these issues.

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.  Researchers developed a "Cost of Voting Index" according to which Texas is the most restrictive state and Oregon is the easiest state in which to vote (>).  The Brennan Center for Justice reported 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, but in election years the legal wrangling inevitably assumes a higher profile.

Erroneous purging of citizens from voter rolls is a major concern.  Investigative reporter Greg Palast charged that Georgia officials, purportedly based on a national change of address list, erroneously purged nearly 200,000 citizens from the state's voter rolls in 2019 (+).  While voter rolls need to be maintained and updated (+), "exact match" rules that can lead to rejection or removal of individuals from the rolls for tiny discrepancies (+).  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 often at the forefront of protecting voting rights.

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." 

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).

Finally, Election Day

After last-ditch campaign swings, the candidates head to their home states or bases.  In past, photos and video of the candidates voting on the morning of Election Day have been typical, but in 2020 they voted early.  Vice President Pence and wife Karen voted on Oct. 23 using their absentee ballots at a drop box outside the clerk's office at the Indianapolis City-County Building in Indianapolis, IN (>).  President Trump voted on Oct. 24 at an early voting location at the Palm Beach County main library in West Palm Beach, FL (>).  Former Vice President Biden and wife Jill voted on Oct. 28 "by appointment" at Carvel Delaware State Building in Wilmington, DE (>).  Sen. Kamala Harris and husband Doug Emhoff voted early by mail (>).

As Election Day, Nov. 3, dawned, the expectation among most pundits was that Biden would win, but there were widespread concerns that Trump might attempt to claim victory based on early results and that there could be a period of unrest or protracted legal imbroglio on par or worse than Bush v. Gore in 2000.

Election Night or Election Week..."It Is Too Early To Know"

As expected there was not a "normal election night" on Nov. 3, 2020; indeed it was more of an election week or weeks.  Increased use of vote by mail due to the pandemic meant the counting took longer.  RepresentUs points out that, "Many states don't allow the processing, verification, or counting of absentee ballots until Election Day (>)."  Mail-in ballots require more processing than ballots tabulated and delivered to the county registrar in a ballot box from a polling place.  (In the 2018 midterms, for example, the CA-21 U.S House race was not called until 20 days after Election Day).  Further, President Trump's statements about whether he would honor the results of the election led some groups to prepare for the worst (+).

Although the outcome on Election Night was "it is too early too know," news organizations devoted major resources election night coverage and there were big multi-page spreads in the newspaper on the morning of November 4.  These 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 has long fulfilled this role.

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 2020]

The Morning Month After...What Does It Mean?

As he had been telegraphing for months, President Trump claimed he had won the election—over and over, again and again—in the weeks following Election Day.  The fact that AP and other major news organizations called the election for Biden on Nov. 7 did not stop him.  Trump issued daily tweets with unsubstantiated, wild claims about election fraud, which were repeated and amplified by outlets such as OAN, The Epoch Times, Newsmax, Sean Hannity and on social media.  All sorts of conspiracy theories cropped up, and misinformation and disinformation were rampant.  Trump's campaign and allies unleashed a legal barrage, filing dozens of lawsuits, and losing most of them. In case after case, the Trump campaign brought forth isolated anecdotes and a raft of affidavits, making broad assertions without offering proof, resulting in some scathing legal opinions (+).  Some observers characterized the effort as an "incompetent coup."  but Trump's refusal to concede put severe strain on America's democracy.
[Reactions 2020]  [Stress Test]

2020 Results

Biden carried 306 electoral votes to 232 electoral votes for Trump.  When all the votes were tallied, 159.6 million votes were cast in the presidential election; Biden won 81.3 million votes (51.3%),Trump 74.2 million (46.8%), Jorgensen 1.9 million (1.2%), Hawkins over 400,000 (0.3%) and others including write-ins about 760,000 votes (0.48%).  Trump won 25 states and one electoral vote from Maine, and Biden 25 states, DC and one electoral vote from Nebraska.  [Results Sliced and Diced]
[See also: David Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, Federal Election Commission, Maps: Data Visualization Weekly], World Mapper]

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.     *estimate

Despite the record turnout, roughly one-third of eligible Americans or about 80 million people did not vote.  A Medill School of Journalism/NPR/Ipsos survey found the top reasons for not voting were: not registered 29 percent, not interested in politics 23 percent, and don't like the candidates 20 percent (>).

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.  On July 6, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on two cases that came out of the 2016 election, Chiafalo et al. v. Washington and Colorado Department of State v. Baca, finding that, "A State may enforce an elector's pledge to support his party's nominee–and the state voters' choice–for President."

19-465 Chiafalo v. Washington (07-0

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.  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. 

For a month leading up to the Dec. 14, 2020 meetings, President Trump waged a noisy campaign to overturn the results, including dozens of lawsuits and attempts to pressure several state legislatures to disregard the results and appoint electors (+).  These efforts failed, and the electors met in the states.  Electors in at least one state, Nevada, met virtually to be safe as coronavirus cases were high (Dec. 14 was the day the U.S. passed 300,000 deaths due to the virus).  The unofficial tally shows that Biden has won 306 electoral votes to 232 for Trump (+).  Republican electors in a number of states  won by Biden did stage sideshow meetings.

On January 6, 2021 in a special joint session of Congress the envelopes sent from the states will be opened and tallied and the election certified.  Typically the tally is a ceremonial affair.  An objection or objections can be raised if one Senator and one Congressman submit them in writing.  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 last time a successful objection was raised happened in the Jan. 2005 session when Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (D-OH) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) objected to the count in Ohio (>).  In that instance members meet in their respective chambers to consider the objections (>).  On Jan. 6, 2021 President Trump is promoting a big protest rally in Washington, DC, many more Senators and representatives will be backing the objections, and in the end the Congress will certify Biden as the winner.

Ongoing Criticism of the Electoral College

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

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.

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 totaling 270 electoral votes have enacted it.  National Popular Vote started in 2006.  As of Nov. 2020, the National Popular Vote bill has been signed into law in 16 jurisdictions totaling 196 electoral votes, and needs approval from additional states totaling 74 electoral votes (+).


Election Day Take 3: 2016 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]