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Important Election Dates to Mark on Your Calendar

By Richard Dahl on October 20, 2020 7:58 AM

Most people understand that Election Day in the U.S. is always the first Tuesday in November. They may be less aware of various important dates and deadlines that follow.

The Constitution lays out a multi-step procedure that must be followed over the course of 10 weeks after Election Day before the presidential winner can be seated.

This year, as Democrats and Republicans alike are bracing for possible legal fights after Nov. 3, those dates are taking on added importance.

Much is still unknown about what might transpire after the election, so new dates and deadlines might emerge.

But until then, this is the schedule that must be followed between the election and the inauguration:

  • November 3: Election Day. This is the day when millions of Americans go to the polls in their local precincts. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, however, millions more will have already cast their ballots by mail. The proportion of votes cast by mail varies by state; many states responded to the coronavirus by making it easier to vote by mail, while some did not. Technically, voters are casting their vote not for their presidential choice, but for a slate of electors who are pledged to support one of the candidates in a later vote.
  • Late November/Early December. This is the period – the dates vary by state – when states certify the election. Ballot disputes or litigation could mean that states will miss certification dates, but that won't invoke penalties in the presidential race.
  • December 8. The “safe harbor" deadline. Most states want their electors to be named by this date. If they are, they can't be challenged by Congress.
  • December 14. This is the date when electors are required to meet in their states and cast their ballots for president. Failure to meet this deadline could mean that the state's electors won't count in the presidential tally. Also, each governor must certify their states' presidential election and slate of electors by this date.
  • December 23. This is the deadline for states to submit their votes to Congress.
  • January 3. The new Congress is sworn in on this day.
  • January 6. This is the date when Congress counts the electoral votes. Ordinarily, this procedure certifies a winner. However, if neither candidate wins a majority of electors, that means the House votes to determine who wins the presidency. Currently, Democrats hold a 232-197 advantage in the House and are expected to be the majority party after the election, but if it falls to the House to determine the presidency, it is done by state congressional delegation – and Republicans currently hold a 26-23 advantage by delegation with one state (Pennsylvania) split. This could change after election day because several states are considered toss-ups.
  • January 20: At noon this day, a new presidential term begins. If Congress has not yet certified a presidential winner, federal law stipulates that the Speaker of the House (currently Nancy Pelosi, D-California) would serve as acting president.

Again, there could be any number of developments that could upset the schedule. One of them that has gotten attention is the possibility that a state would submit competing slates of electors to Congress – this could happen in a state where there is a close race and the governor and legislature represent different parties.

This happened in the 1876 election, when neither Democrat Samuel Tilden nor Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had enough electoral votes to claim victory. In three states representing 19 electoral votes, both sides claimed victory. With no mechanism in place to resolve the issue, the two sides cut a political deal: The Democrats gave those electoral votes, and the presidency, to Hayes (even though he received 260,000 fewer votes than Tilden) in exchange for an end to federal Reconstruction policies in the South. This paved the way for the South's enactment of Jim Crow laws.

In 1887, Congress passed the Electoral Count Act to address the procedures to follow if that happens again. That law has never been used and has been widely criticized as being unclear. In one interpretation, Congress would count the electoral slate backed by the governor of the state; in another, the electoral votes in the disputing states would not be counted at all. Its potential impact is unknown.

In most election seasons, election day marks the end of a long grind. This year, though, it may be just the beginning.

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