US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump gestures after speaking during an election night party with U.S. First Lady Melania Trump, right, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. Trump declared he had won re-election against Joe Biden and said he would ask the Supreme Court to intervene, even as several battleground states continue to count votes. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Dubai: For those who woke up late on Wednesday morning expecting Democratic contender Joe Biden to romp home in the US presidential election, there was a surprise in store. Despite every pollster and historian pointing in the direction of a Biden win, the election has come down to the wire.

The results in most of the states so far have been on expected lines. Trump has held states like Texas, Montana, Idaho and Kansas, while Biden has won in California, Colorado, New York and Illinois.

As expected, a few swing states (states that could vote for either the Republicans or the Democrats, as opposed to those that have always voted for a particular party) will decide the winner.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, gestures while arriving during an election night party in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Trump has won the battlegrounds of Florida (29 electoral college votes), Ohio (18) and Texas (38), dashing Biden's hopes for a decisive early victory, but others like Pennsylvania (20), Wisconsin (10) and Michigan (16) are still up for grabs.

Political scientists and news outlets usually make projections based on the votes counted and the trends available. Following this, elections are called, or simply put, a forecast is made on who the winner is. Forecasting a winner before all votes are counted is based on a complex formula that involves looking at the number of votes counted, historical data and a wide-ranging survey of the American electorate, among other things.

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So why have the elections not been called yet this time despite trends available in all states?

First, the margins are very close and could go either way.

Mail-in ballots

But more importantly, the elections are different this time. Nearly 100 million votes were cast even before Election Day. Many states made it easier to request a mail ballot amid the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about crowded polling places. These mail ballots require more time to process than votes that are cast in person.

Some states with extensive experience in using mail-in ballots have adjusted for those extra steps.

Counting Wisconsin
Election workers tabulate mail-in and absentee ballots in Milwaukee, Wis., on Nov. 3, 2020. Image Credit: NYT

In Florida, clerks could start counting ballots 22 days before the election. In North Carolina, beginning five weeks before the election, county boards insert approved ballots into a voting machine, allowing for a prompt tabulation on Election Day.

But other states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all with Republican-led legislatures and all of them swing states, made a conscious decision to wait. There was no counting of mail-in ballots prior to Election Day. As a result, it could take days to tally enough ballots to project a winner.

Officially, the winner of the White House is not decided until every state has certified its vote count which, given delays for mailed-in ballots, could be a week or more in some places.

As if this was not complex enough, President Trump has declared victory and has said his lawyers would be taking his case to the US Supreme Court after claiming a ‘major fraud on the nation.’

In short, the race to 270 electoral votes looks more like a marathon than a sprint.