People wait US flag Michigan
People wait for US President Donald Trump during a Make America Great Again rally at Capital Region International Airport October 27, 2020, in Lansing, Michigan. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: With just hours to go for the 2020 US presidential elections, all eyes are on President Donald Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden. It’s an election like no other, with the coronavirus pandemic throwing many aspects of the race into uncertainty. A record number of people have already voted before Election Day on November 3.

Will this change the fortunes of the candidates? Will the results be close or will they be decided by the court?

Here’s a look at everything you wanted to know about the US presidential polls.

Is there a fixed date to hold the US presidential elections?

An election for president of the United States happens every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This year the presidential election will be held on November 3, 2020.

US election graphic
Image Credit: Graphic News

What are the qualifications of a US presidential candidate?

The US constitution says that the president must:

- Be a natural-born citizen of the United States

- Be at least 35 years old

- Have been a resident of the United States for 14 years

Anyone who meets these requirements can declare their candidacy for president. Once a candidate raises or spends more than $5,000 for their campaign, they must register with the Federal Election Commission.

Who can vote?

Anyone who is a US citizen, meets the state’s residency requirements and is 18 years old on or before Election Day can vote in the polls.

Who are the candidates?

The US has had presidents for more than 230 years, but only the first - George Washington - has ever been elected as an independent candidate.

The Republican and Democratic parties dominate media coverage and campaign donations. Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic former Vice-President Joe Biden will be going head-to-head to become the next president of the US. But there are 1,214 other candidates who have filed with the Federal Election Commission to run for president.


is the number of electoral votes required to win the presidency.

Jo Jorgensen of the Libertarian Party and Howie Hawkins of the Green Party have qualified to appear on enough state ballots to win a majority — at least 270 electoral votes — in the Electoral College.

Seven other candidates have qualified to appear on the ballot in five states or more.

What time do polls open and close?

The opening and closing times for polling stations vary from state to state. Some states allow people waiting in the queue when the polling station closes to cast their vote – some do not.

Most polls open at 6am and the latest they stay open is until 9pm (in New York and North Dakota). Polling in Vermont opens at 5am. All polling stations will close by 9pm ET on November 3 (5am UAE time, November 4).

When is the winner sworn in?

The new president is officially sworn in on January 20 at the ‘inauguration’ which takes place on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington DC. The days before this are used as a transition period in which the new leader gets time to appoint ministers and set the government’s agenda.

How is the president elected?

In the United States, the winner of a presidential election is determined not by a popular vote but through a system called the Electoral College, which allots “electoral votes” to all 50 states and the District of Columbia based on their population.

How does the Electoral College work?

There are 538 electoral votes. The number is equal to the total voting membership of the US Congress – 435 representatives plus 100 Senators plus 3 from the District of Columbia. The target to win the presidency is 270 electoral votes, or one more than half the Electoral College votes. In 2016, President Donald Trump lost the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton but secured 304 electoral votes to her 227.

Technically, Americans cast votes for electors, not the candidates themselves. Electors are typically party loyalists who pledge to support the candidate who gets the most votes in their state. Each elector represents one vote in the Electoral College.

Disputed election US graphic
Image Credit: Graphic News

How are electors distributed around the country?

Each state gets a particular number of electors based on its population size. For example, California has 55 electoral votes. If your candidate wins in California, they get all 55 Electoral College votes, and if your candidate loses, they get none. In short, the winner takes all.

This is why presidential candidates want to win states with many Electoral College votes. The six states with the most electors are California (55), Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29), Illinois (20), and Pennsylvania (20).

All but two states use a winner-take-all approach: The candidate that wins the most votes in that state gets all of its electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska use a more complex district-based allocation system that could result in their combined nine electoral votes being split between Trump and Biden.

On the rare occasion, like in 2000 and 2016, a candidate can win the popular vote, but fail to win the required 270 electoral votes. This means that the winner may have won electoral votes by small margins winning just enough states with just enough electoral votes, but the losing candidate may have captured large voter margins in the remaining states.

What are safe states and swing states?

Certain states have a long history of voting for a particular party. These are known as safe states. For example, in four election cycles, in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008, Democrats could count on states like Oregon, Maryland, Michigan and Massachusetts, whereas the Republicans could count on states like Mississippi, Alabama, Kansas and Idaho.

States that are teetering between the two parties are called swing states, for example Ohio and Florida, who have provided electoral votes for both Democratic and Republican candidates.

Can electors go rogue?

Yes. In 2016, seven of the 538 electors cast ballots for someone other than their state’s popular vote winner, an unusually high number.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have laws intended to control rogue electors, or “faithless electors.” Some provide a financial penalty for a rogue vote, while others call for the vote to be cancelled and the elector replaced.

When do the electors’ votes have to be certified by?

Federal law requires that electors meet in their respective states and formally send their vote to Congress on “the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December.” This year that date is Dec. 14. Under US law, Congress will generally consider a state’s result to be “conclusive” if it is finalised six days before the electors meet. This date, known as the “safe harbour” deadline, falls on Dec. 8 this year. Those votes are officially tallied by Congress three weeks later and the president is sworn in on Jan. 20.

What if officials in a particular state can’t agree on who won?

Typically, governors certify the results in their respective states and share the information with Congress. But it is possible for “duelling slates of electors,” in which the governor and legislature in a closely contested state could submit two different election results.

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The risk of this happening is heightened in states where the legislature is controlled by a different party than the governor. Several battleground states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.

According to legal experts, it is unclear in this scenario whether Congress should accept the governor’s electoral slate or not count the state’s electoral votes at all.

What if a candidate doesn’t get 270 votes?

One flaw of the Electoral College system is that it could produce a 269-269 tie. If that occurs, a newly elected House of Representatives would decide the fate of the presidency on Jan. 6, with each state’s votes determined by a delegation, as required by the 12th Amendment of the US Constitution.

Will the system ever change?

Critics say the Electoral College thwarts the will of the people. Calls for abolishing the system increased after George W. Bush won the 2000 election despite losing the popular vote, and again in 2016 when Trump pulled off a similar victory.

The Electoral College is mandated in the Constitution, so abolishing it would require a constitutional amendment. Such amendments require two-thirds approval from both the House and Senate and ratification by the states, or a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of state legislatures. Republicans, who benefited from the Electoral College in the 2000 and 2016 elections, are unlikely to back such an amendment.

How are ballots counted?

In-person votes are tabulated automatically, and in most cases are ready to announce within hours or even minutes of polls closing. But mailed ballots involve a laborious process and each state again has its own rules. Some states will only count mailed ballots that arrive by Election Day; others will accept them up to 10 days later if they are postmarked by Election Day.

Mexico early voting
US citizens cast their vote at a polling station in Ajijic, Jalisco State, Mexico, on October 27, 2020. Tuesday is the last day for US citizens residing in Mexico to cast their vote remotely a few days from the elections, amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Image Credit: AFP

Because of the burden on the Postal Service, some states have lengthened the period they will accept ballots. The process for verifying signatures, opening envelopes, and removing and then counting the ballots differs from state to state. In Colorado, for example, ballots are opened on receipt. Counting - handled by machine - begins 15 days before the election, but data cannot be revealed until 7:00 pm on Election Day.

If the November 3 election between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden is close, many expect legal battles that, like in 2000, could go to the Supreme Court. The 2000 election was decided by a mere 537 vote difference in Florida.

What's the overall vote picture?

In 2016 about 139 million Americans voted, 33 million of them by mail. This year researchers project turnout could top 150 million, with possibly half of it mail-in votes.

How does mail-in voting work?

Nine states and Washington, DC automatically send mail-in ballots to all voters. In other states, voters have had to request them. In the past this was restricted to "absentee" voters, but this year many states - though not all - made it possible for anyone to get an absentee or mail-in ballot.

Each state has its own rules. Most require the voter to fill out the ballot, put it in a return envelope, sign the outer envelope and mail the vote back, or drop it in designated drop boxes. But some states include a privacy sleeve, which the ballot first goes into, before placing it in the envelope.

Some states require a voter to have witnesses also sign the outer envelope and provide their contacts. In Alabama, which has some of the most restrictive voting laws, the voter needs two witness signatures.

What other elections are held on polling day?

While all the attention will be on Trump and Biden, voters will also be choosing new members of Congress. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, along with 33 seats or one-third of the Senate. Currently, Democrats have control of the House and they will be looking to keep hold of it. The Republicans hold the Senate at present by a slender margin and will have a tight fight to maintain control. If the Democrats have a majority in both chambers they will be able to block or delay President Trump’s plans if he were to be re-elected.

- With inputs from Reuters