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What happens if the US election is contested?

Max Pepper/CNN
Max Pepper/CNN

Even if the election is messy and contested in court, the country will have a president on Inauguration Day. The Constitution and federal law ensure it.

Posted: Oct 30, 2020 10:16 AM
Updated: Nov 2, 2020 3:16 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Is it possible the election will be up in the air and the United States won’t have a president on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2021?

Even if the election is messy and contested in court, the country will have a president on Inauguration Day. The Constitution and federal law ensure it.

Here’s what happens after voters go to the polls on Nov. 3: First, states have more than a month to count ballots, but their electoral votes have to be cast on Dec. 14. Courts will be mindful of that in refereeing any disputes. During the 2000 election, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ended Florida’s vote recount, saying time had run out before electors were set to meet.

Key Dates Between Vote and Inauguration

  • Nov. 3: Election Day
  • Nov. 4-23: Deadlines vary by state to receive absentee and overseas ballots from voters unable to vote in person.
  • Nov. 5-Dec. 12: Deadlines vary by state to certify election results, including for president and vice president, to determine how state electors will vote.
  • Dec. 14: State electors cast their ballots; the candidate with 270 or more votes wins.
  • Jan. 6: A joint session of Congress convenes, with Vice President Mike Pence presiding, to certify results.
  • Jan. 20: The president and vice president are sworn in.

Settling an Unsettled Election

If the presidential election is not decided when state-chosen electors meet Dec. 14 to cast their electoral votes, the Constitution and federal law outline a procedure to ensure a president and vice president take office.

When that happens, the House of Representatives votes for President. Each state gets one vote, and 26 votes are needed to elect.

At the same time, the Senate votes for Vice President. Each senator gets one vote, and 51 votes are needed to elect.

If a presidential candidate gets the required 26 votes by Jan. 20, 2021, that candidate is elected president.

If a vice-presidential candidate gets the required 51 votes by Jan. 20, 2021, that candidate is elected vice president.

If no presidential candidate has the 26 votes by Jan. 20, 2021, the VP-elect acts as president until president is elected.

At that time, if no VP-elect has been chosen, the Speaker of the House (or president pro tempore of the Senate if the speaker is unable) acts as president until president is elected.

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