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Elections expert: The certainty and the uncertainty of the 2020 vote

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(Editor's note: Dr. Jason Maloy wrote the following. He is a professor and Kaliste Saloom Endowed Chair in Political Science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Find more resources related to the 2020 vote at the University's dedicated elections website.)

What's Certain, or 'Locked In'
  • The national vote total does not select the US President. The Electoral College does.
  • The Electoral College winner can be different from the winner of the national vote.
  • Electoral College totals accumulate state-by-state, with candidates gaining Electoral College votes as each new state is declared for them.
  • Every state government is responsible for counting its own statewide vote totals. Different states count at different speeds and report their results at different times.
  • Some opinion polls forecast the national vote. Other polls forecast state-by-state votes.
  • National opinion polls are not forecasts of state-by-state results, or of Electoral College results. They are not predictions of the presidential winner.
  • Statewide opinion polls shed more light than national polls on candidates’ chances in the Electoral College. Usually around a dozen “battleground” states have polling that is extensively reported in the media.
  • Election forecasters develop mathematical models to translate the forecasts from multiple polls in multiple states into forecasts for the Electoral College as a whole.
  • Forecasts are not predictions. They merely help us tell the difference between likely and unlikely outcomes.
  • The national vote total will be the last thing we know about this election, after all 50 states have reported their statewide vote totals.
  • It is possible to know the winner of the Electoral College before all votes have been counted in all 50 states, whenever the declared states for one candidate amount to more than 50 percent of Electoral College votes.
  • A state can be declared for one candidate before all votes have been counted in that state, if the partial vote totals in that candidate’s favor are large enough that the remaining votes cannot overturn the deficit.

What's Almost Certain
  • Because of pandemic conditions and unusually large volumes of mail-in ballots in 2020, there will be major differences in counting and reporting times among different states.
  • Some states will report final vote totals on election night. Others will not, taking days or perhaps weeks to report.
  • The states that do report final vote totals on election night may or may not add up to more than 50 percent of Electoral College votes for one candidate.
  • Among “battleground” states in 2020, the rules and procedures for voting and counting in Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona will lead to a relatively quick result. But Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin could take days or weeks.
  • If any state reports final vote totals that are very close between the two leading candidates (say, less than 0.5 percent), legal challenges (lawsuits or recounts) may prevent the initially declared result from becoming official in the Electoral College.
  • Lawsuits and recounts can take several days or weeks to resolve, after technical and procedural disputes are settled by state governments or by state and federal courts.

What's Likely and What's Unlikely
  • Electoral College forecasts in late October put Trump’s chances of victory at around 20 percent, and Biden’s chances at around 80 percent.
  • National polls in late October put Biden’s lead over Trump at about 9 percent.
  • Though national polls have no direct bearing on the Electoral College, they have an indirect significance.
  • Mathematically, the Electoral College is less likely to overturn the national vote total as the national vote deficit gets larger: with a deficit of 5 percent or more, it is very unlikely that a national-vote loser can win the Electoral College.
  • Though Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are regarded as politically similar states, Trump is polling stronger in Pennsylvania and weaker in Michigan and Wisconsin.
  • If Trump wins Michigan or Wisconsin, he will probably also win Pennsylvania.
  • If Biden wins Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump could still win Pennsylvania.
  • Trump probably cannot win the Electoral College without winning Pennsylvania, unless he compensates by winning one or two other states that he lost in 2016.
  • Biden can win the Electoral College without winning Pennsylvania, if he compensates with victory in Florida, North Carolina, or Arizona.
  • Trump probably cannot win the Electoral College on election night, since Pennsylvania is unlikely to report quickly.
  • Biden can win the Electoral College on election night (without knowing the Pennsylvania result), if he is declared the winner of other states that Trump won in 2016.
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