U.S. election: What happens if there’s a contested election?

The upcoming U.S. election could be a first for the nation. Never has a sitting president in the U.S. rejected the results of an election, but President Donald Trump has declined committing to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses on Nov. 3 to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

“We’re going to have to see what happens,” Trump said at a Sept. 23 news conference, responding to a question about whether he’d commit.

Trump’s biggest issue with the election? Mail-in votes.

More states are encouraging mail-in voting to try to keep voters safe amid the coronavirus pandemic, but Trump has rejected the validity of these ballots on several occasions, saying mail-in votes are “a scam” and that “they’re going to be a disaster.”

“He’s making these claims without any kind of proof … most of them are baseless,” said Global News Washington correspondent Reggie Cecchini. “While he’s been trying to say that he wants to get rid of mail-in balloting, the truth is the United States has been doing mail-in ballots for more than a century.”

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission says millions more have been voting by mail this year compared to the total for the 2016 election, but this surge in mail-in ballots may mean this year’s election could take weeks to finalize.

Beyond the usual calls for recounts, if either candidate is unhappy with the results, there are a couple of ways of trying to change them.

The United States Electoral College

When voters cast their ballot, they’re determining what the U.S. calls the popular vote, but this does not decide who wins the election — that falls on the 538 members of the Electoral College. 

A candidate needs 270 of their votes to win the presidency. Normally, electors would cast a ballot for the party which won the popular vote in their respective state. But because the electors are affiliated with a political party, it’s possible they could go against the popular vote.

This is rarely done and some states have laws against it, but it could happen.

The Supreme Court of the United States

Another way the U.S. election could be contested is by going to the Supreme Court.

This court just rejected a Democratic effort to extend Wisconsin’s ballot deadline, which is 8 p.m. on Election Day.

“There is a fear that if this winds up in the Supreme Court that things could be tilted towards President Trump,” Cecchini said. 

The recent game-changer is Amy Coney Barrett, a new Supreme Court justice who was appointed by Trump. “There have been questions as to whether Amy Coney Barrett would step aside and recuse herself from any kind of decision.”

The Supreme Court was involved in the 2000 election — it ultimately decided the election between Republican candidate George W. Bush and Democratic candidate Al Gore. After the election became tangled over disputed ballots in Florida, the court terminated the recount effort and Gore conceded.

As to what is likely to happen on election day, law professor Joshua Geltzer of Georgetown University says he hopes to avoid seeing “the nightmare scenarios of actors in the system really trying not to honour the will of the people.”

Geltzer says, “Whatever a legitimate election result means, it should be not at all in question that both candidates will honour and respect it.”

Even if there is an election dispute, the U.S. Constitution and federal law ensure the U.S. will have a president on Inauguration Day: Jan. 20, 2021.

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