Simply complicated: Why US is taking so long to declare its new President

As Biden with an aura of President says ‘power can’t be taken or asserted,’ Trump plans legal battles in a country worst hit by COVID-19, and where a massive volume of postal votes means delayed results

US election
There is delay in the counting of votes in the US but that is because election officials want to leave nothing to chance and each ballot is given due weightage – whether it is 'on the spot' voting or those that came in via mail. Photo: PTI FIle

It’s been almost two days past the US elections, yet it is not clear who is winning the presidential race. The picture thus far is: Biden 264 and Donald Trump, 214 in the Electoral College. A victorious candidate must reach the 270 mark to win the presidency. America now appears set for hours or even days of uncertainty with vote counts possibly giving way to legal tussles in several states as the country battles the worst public health crisis in 100 years.

What’s the confusion about the votes? Is it all that complicated?

In a brief statement on Wednesday afternoon, Democratic candidate Joe Biden said his campaign was on track to win 270 electoral votes, but that he was not declaring victory until the count was completed in key states. “Here, the people rule. Power can’t be taken or asserted,” Biden said, with an air of a winner, vowing to unite the country and work for national healing as president.

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Trump hasn’t appeared in public since his bizarre claims of victory in the early hours of counting in which he demanded that legally cast ballots in contested states where he may fall behind not be counted. He also threatened to go to the Supreme Court.

It was not clear to what extent Trump’s remarks were calculated or extemporaneous. There was a teleprompter in front of him, though he appeared to improvise, like when he complained that a news organization — it was Fox News, though he never named it — had awarded Arizona, a state that Trump won 2016, to Biden.

“We did win this election,” he said. “So our goal now is to ensure the integrity for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we’ll be going to the US Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop.”

Trump’s comments appeared sure to escalate a bitter legal battle over how the votes should be counted. It was unclear what sort of Supreme Court challenge the President had in mind. There is no legal argument to compel the states to stop counting ballots that were properly filled out and submitted on time.

Also read:The great genius comes up with a win by falsely claiming victory

This may get tricky

Several key states, including Arizona, Georgia and Michigan, are expected to project a winner at some point on Wednesday or Thursday. With results from these critical states — plus the others who projected winners late on Tuesday — a clearer picture could emerge of the likely outcome.

But that’s not all. If there are legal challenges to the results, already threatened by Trump, it might take weeks before a candidate can officially declare victory. This could get tricky.

First a reminder: to become President, one doesn’t actually need to win the popular vote. Instead, a candidate has to win the majority in a system called the electoral college, where each state gets a certain number of votes or “electors” roughly in proportion to its population. So, if you win a state, you win its votes (except Nebraska and Maine, but that’s complicated).

There are 538 of these state votes in total. The person who gets 270 will become president. So for both candidates, the road to the White House means a carefully plotted path through states that will get you to this magic number.

Why the delay?

Generally, when the figures show a candidate has an unbeatable lead, major US networks declare a candidate the winner. This tends to happen in the early hours of the morning after voting day.

But these are projections, and the final official tally has always taken days to count. But this year’s massive volume of postal votes means the counting is taking longer, especially as some battleground states have not allowed counting ahead of the election day.

So they have had to count everything on the day itself, and counting postal votes can take longer than in-person votes due to verification requirements.

For starters, it looks like polling data going into this week gave an incomplete picture, CNN and BBC reported. Robert Cuffe, BBC’s head of statistics, says it’s still too early to say whether this election has been a pollster’s nightmare. “But we do know that the national poll average did not appear to forecast the nail-biter we find ourselves in now. Final national polls showed Biden leading Trump by about eight points. In battleground states, Biden also polled in the lead, but by a much slimmer margin.

Voters’ priorities may have also been slightly misjudged. While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated headlines for most of this year, a survey conducted by Edison Research found that only one in five voters considered the virus the top issue influencing their vote. But many more — more than one-third of all voters — said the economy was their key issue.

This view may have favoured Trump — those preferred the economy and jobs leaned heavily favoured the president. So, where do we stand? Donald Trump is doing better than expected and Biden has failed to win those battleground states which count votes quickly, which means more uncertainty as we wait for a few key states.

Lawsuits and frauds

President Trump has criticized the expansion of postal voting in the presidential election, claiming it leads to widespread fraud. But is there an evidence? The US is forced in an uncharted territory during the coronavirus pandemic with a record number of Americans voting by post.

Numerous national and state-level studies have shown that although there have been isolated cases, electoral fraud is very rare. There have been a few, well-publicized cases, such as in the 2018 North Carolina primary, which was re-run after a consultant for the Republican candidate tampered with voting papers.

Also read:What if US election results run into dispute? This is what may happen

But the rate of voting fraud overall in the US is less than 0.0009%, according to a 2017 study by Brennan Center for Justice.

And Federal Election Commission head Ellen Weintraub has said: “There’s simply no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud.”

Here are a couple of instances: In Virginia, speaking at a rally in mid-October, Trump said: “In Virginia, 500,000 applications were made that were false.” And these applications, to apply for an absentee ballot form, were sent out with the wrong return address. But the electoral authorities in Virginia say there was no fraudulent intent and the mistake has been corrected.

The Virginia Center for Voter Information (CVI) said: “We worked for weeks to make sure that no Virginia voter was inconvenienced as a result of our printing error.” And as of October 19, 300,000 registered voters have since returned an application for an absentee ballot, the CVI reported.

In Ohio, President Trump tweeted: “In Ohio, 50,000 ballots were wrong, fraudulent — 50,000.” And about 50,000 voters did receive the wrong ballot in the post, in Franklin County, Ohio, in early October. But there is no evidence this was done fraudulently.

The local elections board says everyone affected has now been sent the correct voter slip, with safeguards in place to ensure no-one votes twice. The board said the ballot error had been a “serious mistake”.

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