“It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” once quipped Yogi Berra, the ever-quotable baseball icon. But when the hell will the 2020 election be done? In one way, it is finished. The race was called for Joe Biden. He won the popular vote by 51 to 47 percent and trounced Donald Trump in the Electoral College 306 to 232. Yet Trump and his cult are denying reality and dragging out the process. As Trump touts one conspiracy theory after another in falsely declaring the election was stolen from him, his legal team (if you can call it that) now led by the maniacal Rudy Giuliani has been filing bogus lawsuits to challenge the results, and the Trump campaign has been demanding recounts in key states. The new tallies are unlikely to change anything, and as of now Trump has a 1-and-25 record on the lawsuits. (That’s one minor win and 25 losses.) But all this is undermining the election and fostering discord and anxiety.
There appears no means for Trump to legitimately overturn the vote counts. Yet he is doing whatever he can to delegitimize an election that cast him a loser of historic proportion. (No American politician has ever had more people vote against him.) And he and his henchmen are sowing suspicion, as they attempt to forge the baseless and dangerous narrative that Trump (and his voters) were robbed. At the same time, they seem to hope that some against-all-odds play could change the ending of this drawn-out drama. On Tuesday night, for instance, two Republican officials in Michigan initially blocked the certification of votes in Detroit—disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Black citizens and prompting concern that their action might threaten the official acceptance of Biden electors in Michigan. But in the face of popular outrage, the two GOPers backed down. Steady as it goes.
That episode freaked out many who fear that Trump the Destroyer of Democratic Norms would find some underhanded way to defraud the American political system and retain power. After all, he has been using his fact-free charges of vote theft to impede the transfer of power to Biden—a callous act that is endangering Americans by slowing a transition focused on thwarting the surging coronavirus pandemic.
So will there come a time—before the inauguration on January 20—when Americans who care about democracy and who yearn for an effective response to the COVID-19 crisis can breath easy? With Trump at the helm, the answer is…probably not. But there are some upcoming dates to anticipate.
Let’s look at how an election count generally works. After an election, a county certifies the vote count it has publicly reported. Then the state certifies the statewide count. The deadlines for all these certifications differ. But this mostly happens within the four weeks following the election. Next, on December 8, states finalize the appointment of the electors of the Electoral College (according to the certified state vote counts). Six days later, the electors cast their votes. On December 23, Vice President Mike Pence receives the electoral votes. (“We regret to inform you…”) On January 6, the House and Senate conduct their tally of the electoral votes. Finito.
Back to the certification process. When the states have certified their votes, the results are truly official. Let’s focus on those dates for the key states. Georgia certifies on November 20, Michigan on November 23, Nevada on November 24, Arizona on November 30, and Wisconsin on December 1. There is no deadline for Pennsylvania’s state certification.
The critical question for worrywarts is when there will be a combination of certifications from these particular states to guarantee Biden has surpassed 270 electoral votes.
Georgia is proceeding with a recount. That could push back its certification, which was scheduled for Friday. And Trump’s request of a recount in Wisconsin could postpone the Badger State’s December 1 certification. But Georgia state officials on Tuesday said they expected the recount to be done soon, perhaps as early as Wednesday. And that could allow for a certification on Friday. Still, Atlanta lawyer Lin Wood, a Trump backer, has filed a lawsuit to prevent Georgia’s certification and to throw out all absentee ballots.
By November 30, Michigan, Nevada, and Arizona are supposed to be certified—though long-shot or unmerited legal actions mounted by Trump and his allies could interfere with those certifications. Official counts from these three states and Georgia would bring Biden up to 276 electoral votes. Over the top. With Pennsylvania and Wisconsin still to come. It would be time for the fretters to rest easy.
But there could be a sooner decision day. In Pennsylvania, counties have to send their tallies to the secretary of the commonwealth by November 23, and she is supposed to certify the results subsequently, but there is no deadline. That affirmation could come immediately. Say that happened the next day, Biden would possess enough certified electoral votes to win—presuming Georgia and Michigan had met their certification deadlines. And the American majority could stop anguishing. Yet here’s another wrinkle: the Pennsylvania certification could be delayed, under state law, if 100 voters go to a state court and claim the election was fraudulent.
So with Trump still endeavoring to muck up the process, there is no telling which certification deadlines will be met. Given that his spurious lawsuits have generally been tossed out of various courts, these deadlines could be unaffected. But it could be a week or two—or more—before there will be a clear picture of what certifications are happening when.
Ultimately, states are supposed to finalize their electors by December 8. That should or could be the final deadline—when all official certifications are resolved. Yet it’s possible that Trump shenanigans could interfere with this.
Of course, at any point, Trump could acknowledge reality, concede (with or without grace), and cease the disruptions. That does not seem probable. Anxiety, thus, could well continue until next month, or beyond. The damage being wrought by Trump’s assault on the election, though, extends beyond the inducement of uncertainty. Every day that goes by with Trump challenging and defying the results deepens his assault on American democracy and is another day lost in the fight to prevent the pandemic from claiming more American lives. Trump may never concede. But there presumably will come a moment when the official results are finalized. Thanks to the crazy-quilt election system and Trump’s ongoing tantrum, the nation just doesn’t yet know that date.