Donald Trump was soundly defeated in the 2020 election and Joe Biden is president-elect. Although the counting has been slow, the result was a landslide. In normal times, Donald Trump would have conceded long before now.
But Trump being Trump, the lame-duck president has appeared determined to falsely claim victory until that’s no longer an option, and to then pivot to victimhood. In the weeks since the election, the president’s legal team has lost dozens of lawsuits, with claims of fraud and/or election regularities being laughed out of courts from Pennsylvania to Nevada. And Trump’s seditious pressure campaign to get GOP officials to block the certification of election results in states where he plainly lost has also failed from Georgia to Michigan to Arizona.
Trump’s efforts, though corrosive to our democratic system, have amounted to little more than an embarrassing PR stunt. Fortunately, the law cares little for such theatrics and temper tantrums — and lays out a firm timetable by which Trump will be removed from office. Below we break down the key dates and mechanics for ousting Trump from the office of the presidency and inaugurating Joe Biden to the White House.
When Is the Vote Counting Over?
The outcome of the election is clear, but the final tally is not. The states are coming to the end of the period the law provides to complete the task of counting ballots, to resolve any recounts or legal challenges arising from their elections, and to certify the results. (Here’s a map where you can track the progress of certification nationwide.) The “safe harbor” period ends on December 8th, by which time all disputes must be concluded. The end of the counting in each state allows the governor to sign a “Certificates of Ascertainment,” the official document that records the election results in that state.
When Does the Electoral College Vote?
The United States does not have a direct democracy, and the presidency is no exception. The votes that were cast by millions of Americans through November 3rd determined each state’s representation in the Electoral College, which in fact elects the president and vice president. In each state before the general election, the two parties created competing slates of potential electors. Depending on the outcome of the presidential vote in each state, the victorious party’s slate will be activated to vote in the Electoral College. These electors tend to be prominent party activists and/or former officials. (Hillary and Bill Clinton will be electors in New York, for example.) The Electoral College does not meet as a single body. Instead, electors convene in their various states on December 14th. They record their individual votes for president and vice president on paper, tallying the final state-by-state outcomes in what are known as “Certificates of the Vote.”
Does the Electoral College Have to Respect the Will of the People?
The voters of the Electoral College are largely bound to vote for the candidate selected by the voters of that state. Local law in 32 states plus the District of Columbia forbids individual electoral college voters from choosing any candidate but the winner in those states. Other states put their faith in the electors to follow the will of the public.
This is a good bet, because each state’s voters in the Electoral College have been chosen by the political party of the winning candidate, and there’s little chance that these electors will decide to undermine that candidate. However, in almost every election there are a few “faithless electors” who cast their votes at variance with the voting public. These tend to be symbolic or votes, and are more common if there’s residual intraparty bitterness following a fiercely fought primary contest. In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton rival Bernie Sanders picked up an electoral college vote in Democratic Hawaii, while in Republican Texas a pair of Never Trumpers cast electoral college votes for former GOP presidential candidates Ron Paul and John Kaisich. (There were a record seven faithless electors in that election overall.) If Biden ends up being certified the victor in the states where he now leads, he’d have predicted margin of 74 votes in the Electoral College, seemingly far outside the margin that any faithless elector issue could alter.
When Is the Electoral College Vote Counted?
A joint session of Congress records the vote of the Electoral College on January 6th, 2021. The Vice President — that is to say Mike Pence — presides over the ceremony in which envelopes from the various states with their vote tallies are opened. At the conclusion of the special session, the final number of tallied counts for President and Vice President in the Electoral College are read aloud by the Vice President and the election is formally concluded.
(For a bit or recent history, watch Biden perform this function to finalize the Trump/Pence victory in 2017.)
When is the Inauguration?
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be sworn in on the West Front of the United States Capitol Building and officially assume their offices at about noon on January 20th, 2021.