Donald Trump’s last chance: stop the vote from being rubber-stamped

As Donald Trump continues to dispute his election loss, the outgoing US president is approaching a series of deadlines that will further cement Joe Biden’s victory.

US states are certifying their results over the next few weeks in a staggered process ahead of December 14, the date on which the Electoral College formally meets to confirm the next president.

The lengthy timeline provides space for Mr Trump to cast further doubt on the clear verdict of the American people and to block the transition process to Mr Biden’s administration, even if he has little hope of overturning the result.

“As a technical matter, it’s inconsequential if the president fusses about the outcome of the election because it is not a fully decided process until all of these steps have taken place,” said Russell Riley, co-chair of the Miller Center’s presidential oral history programme.

“The broader picture is it is a violation of all of the expectations of the office and a violation of the standards of fair play that make democracy possible,” he added.

Though voting ended on November 3, US states each have their own processes for ensuring a reliable count that typically involves multiple checks, laws that are particular to each state, and varying deadlines.

In Georgia, the certification deadline is November 20. After completing an initial tally, the state has embarked on a hand recount of every presidential vote as part of an audit.

Timeline to Joe Biden’s inauguration

November 20

Vote certification deadline in Georgia

November 23

Deadline for counties to submit vote totals in Pennsylvania

Start of 20-day window for Michigan panel to complete certification

November 30

Vote certification deadline in Arizona

December 1

Vote certification deadline in Nevada and Wisconsin

December 8

‘Safe harbour’ date, promising states their electoral votes will be counted if finalised by this deadline

December 14

Electors meet separately in each state to cast votes in the Electoral College

January 6

Congress counts Electoral College votes in session presided over by incumbent US vice-president, Mike Pence

January 20

Presidential inauguration

Pennsylvania, where Mr Trump has mounted most of his lawsuits, has a November 23 deadline for counties to submit their final vote totals. The Trump campaign is seeking a court order to prevent the state from certifying its results.

In states including Georgia, the results are certified by the elected secretary of state, but the process is more idiosyncratic elsewhere, offering Mr Trump opportunities to throw a spanner in the gears.

In Michigan, the results are certified by a four-person board that has two Democrats and two Republicans, raising the prospect of a deadlock. The board has a 20-day window from November 23 to complete the certification with at least three votes.

Typically, Michigan’s presidential results are certified on the first day of the window without complications, but Democrats are preparing to force the board’s hand if the Republican members block or delay the process.

In a portent of that possibility, the board of canvassers in Wayne County, which includes the city of Detroit, deadlocked on certifying the results on Tuesday afternoon following a 2-2 split between Democrats and Republicans, who made allegations of irregularities.

The Republicans subsequently reversed course late on Tuesday evening, allowing the board to unanimously certify the results on the condition that the Michigan secretary of state conduct an audit of precincts with out-of-balance tallies.

“The courts have been clear that the [Michigan board’s] duty is ministerial,” meaning that it does not have discretion, said Mark Brewer, a Democratic election lawyer in Michigan with the firm Goodman Acker. 

The final certification deadlines among the main battleground states is December 1 for Nevada and Wisconsin. As each state gives its results the imprimatur of certification, the reality of Mr Trump’s defeat will become yet more stark.

The steady sequence of certifications will make it harder for the Trump administration to continue to resist the beginning of Mr Biden’s transition, particularly once states that give the president-elect a majority in the Electoral College have finalised their results. Federal law requires the release of transition funds when the result of the election is “apparent”.

Mr Trump could request recounts in states where the margin is close, like Wisconsin and Georgia, though these do not tend to change the vote totals by very much. In Wisconsin, the Trump campaign must request a recount before the end of Wednesday and would have to front up $7.9m in advance to cover the estimated costs.

In any case, Mr Biden has a wide projected margin of 306 votes to 232 in the Electoral College, meaning that even extraordinary events overturning his win in one state would not undo his overall victory.

Those realities are a significant reason why Mr Trump’s legal actions are widely considered to have little to no hope of success.

“The campaign’s lawsuits so far don’t advance arguments to alter enough votes in enough states to change the outcome in the Electoral College,” said a Republican elections lawyer.

“It’s just not a close election,” added Ian Bassin, a former Obama White House lawyer and founder of Protect Democracy, a non-partisan group. 

The next steps after certification are a pair of deadlines in December. Congress has set the 8th as a “safe harbour” date that promises states their Electoral College votes will be counted if finalised by this deadline.

Six days later, electors meet separately in each state to cast votes in the Electoral College. The electors will be either Democratic or Republican depending on who won the particular state, and they generally vote in line with the state’s popular vote.

From there, the last stops are January 6, when Congress counts the Electoral College votes at a session presided over by Mike Pence, the incumbent US vice-president, and the inauguration on January 20.

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