The Electoral College is formally voting on Monday, finalizing Trump's presidential election defeat

The Electoral College is formally voting on Monday, finalizing Trump's presidential election defeat
A Pennsylvania elector holds her ballot for President Donald Trump on December 19, 2016.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
  • On November 6, Insider and Decision Desk HQ projected that now President-elect Joe Biden had won the Electoral College and defeated President Donald Trump.
  • But the results weren't official until every state fully canvassed and certified its election results, which occurs on a different timeline in every state and ended on December 8, the safe harbor deadline.
  • After certification, the slate of presidential electors selected by every state's voters are gathering and casting their votes in each state and the District of Columbia on December 14 this year.
  • Here's a step-by-step guide to how the electoral college process works and how the college selects a president.

Voting in the 2020 presidential election ended on November 3, with now President-elect Joe Biden projected to win more than the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to secure the presidency.

Insider and Decision Desk HQ as well as other major news outlets projected Biden to be the winner over November 6 and November 7, but Biden won't officially become the president-elect until each state formally certifies its results, which occurs on a different timeline in each state, and is set to finish on Tuesday, December 8.

After results are certified, electors from those states are gathering and voting on December 14, bringing an end to weeks of failed litigation to overturn the election results and unsuccessful efforts by President Donald Trump and his allies to directly pressure state legislators to subvert the results.

In the United States, Americans don't directly elect the president. And contrary to popular belief, there is no constitutional right to vote for president.

Instead, the electoral college, a system that was devised in the 18th century by the nation's founders, involves states appointing a number of electors equal to the number of representatives they have in Congress. All states, except for Maine and Nebraska, use a winner-takes-all system in which the candidate who wins the most votes earns all of the state's electoral college votes.


This system has resulted in some presidential elections - like the ones in 2000 and 2016 - in which the winner of the national popular vote loses the electoral college, sparking criticism that the electoral college is fundamentally undemocratic and disenfranchises voters.

The Electoral College is formally voting on Monday, finalizing Trump's presidential election defeat
Harris County election clerk Jose Mendoza watches over voting booths during early voting for Texas primary runoffs on June 29 in Houston.(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Here's the timeline for how the electoral college process is playing out in 2020.

November 3, 2020: States appointed their electors

States must appoint their electors to the electoral college on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November under a federal law passed by Congress in 1845.

Today, all states hold popular elections to determine how their electoral college votes will be allocated, but they aren't required to do so by the constitution or by federal law. For much of America's early history, legislatures directly voted on how to appoint their electors without any input from the voters.

In most previous years, TV networks and outlets like the Associated Press have been able to call the winner on election night based on the available results and projections from data like exit polls.


But the results of any election are never finalized on election night. In every US state, laws explicitly allocate multiple days or weeks for officials to fully canvass and then certify the results, a process that has been occurring in states around the country for the past several weeks.

During the canvassing process, canvassing boards, which are usually composed of county-level election officials, process and tabulate not just the votes of those who voted in person, but domestic absentee and mail-in ballots, provisional ballots, and ballots from overseas and military voters.

The canvassing process immediately after the election is the time in which we saw the most legal challenges over which ballots should count. The Trump campaign has filed more than two dozen lawsuits in multiple states seeking to challenge the validity of ballots, stop vote counting, or get the presidential election results overturned altogether in states that Biden won. They haven't won a single case so far.

When the canvasses are complete in each county, local election officials certify each county's result and the governor of each state certifies the statewide results. The governor then transmits a copy of the results and the names of the state's slate of electors to the National Archives.

December 8, 2020: The safe harbor deadline in the electoral college

The "safe harbor" deadline was six days before the electoral colleges convene to vote. While states aren't legally required to certify their results by this date, if they so do, those results are final and must be accepted by Congress.


States certifying election results by the safe harbor deadline can avoid Congress getting involved and resolving a potential dispute over which candidate won a particular state's electoral college votes. As of Tuesday morning, all but a few states - including all the major 2020 battleground states - have certified their presidential results.

The safe harbor deadline came into play during the court challenges over the disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida. It could have been a factor this year too, if there had been any serious dispute over the 2020 results.

On the day of the 2000 safe harbor deadline, the Supreme Court ruled that Florida's varying recount policies violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment by arbitrarily valuing some votes over others.

The Court still ruled 5-4 to uphold Florida's certification of the state's electoral college votes for former President George W. Bush. The majority opinion was in line with the wishes of the Florida legislature, which wanted the state to certify the results and avoid leaving the winner of the state's electoral college votes to Congress.

December 14, 2020: Electors vote

On the second Monday after the second Wednesday in December, slates of electors selected by voters are convening in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to formally cast their votes for president and vice president.


The electoral college formally voting to make Biden president will render moot or bring an end to nearly all outstanding challenges to election results.

The states then send certificates of their vote to their state's chief election official (in most but not all states, this is the secretary of state), the National Archives, and the current president of the Senate.

January 6, 2021 at 1 p.m.: Vote count is finalized as the results are certified

The sitting vice president, acting as the Senate president, presides over a joint session of Congress to read aloud the certificates cast by the electors representing all 50 states and Washington, DC, in alphabetical order to finalize the vote count.

If no members of Congress object to any of the certificates in writing, the Senate president officially certifies the selection of the president-elect and vice president-elect.

Already, some Trump allies in the House, including Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, have indicated that they intend to challenge states' slates of electoral votes in that joint session. However, a member of the House and a member of the Senate must both vote to challenge a given state's electors.


At that point, both the House and Senate would deliberate on whether to accept that state's slate of electors. After the 2004 election, for example, House and Senate Democrats challenged Ohio's electoral college votes after widespread reports of election mismanagement and voter suppression in the state. Congress eventually accepted the state's electoral votes.

January 20, 2021 at noon: The president is inaugurated

The president and vice president are formally inaugurated and sworn into office. The president is sworn in by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the vice president can be sworn in by another government official of their choosing.