Following an Election, When Are Certified Election Results Expected?

How does a president-elect becomes officially designated as the next commander in chief?

A map shows the number of electoral votes per state.
A map shows the number of electoral votes per state. (photo: Shutterstock)

A fortnight after the Nov. 3 election, former Vice President Joe Biden is preparing for the transition process, naming his senior White House advisers and considering his cabinet nominations, as The Associated Press and other news outlets have projected Biden will win more than the requisite 270 Electoral College votes needed to become the 46th president of the United States.

However, President Donald Trump has refused to concede the election and has filed long-shot lawsuits, claiming voter fraud and calling for recounts in certain swing states. According to the AP, Biden was projected to win at least 290 electoral votes as the remaining states certify election results, leaving Trump with a virtually nonexistent path to reelection. 

As the Trump campaign’s challenges make their way though the courts, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, recently announced that his state will conduct a recount of the votes in the presidential race by hand. As of press time, The Associated Press had not yet made a projection of the winner in Georgia, although Biden leads Trump by a small margin. Georgia’s certification deadline is Nov. 20, so any recount efforts there must be concluded by then without court orders otherwise. 

In recent history — with a notable exception during the controversial 2000 election — modern presidents and presidential candidates have relied on press projections to accept a victory or concede defeat. But Trump’s refusal to do so has raised questions about the certification process and how a president-elect becomes officially designated as the next commander in chief. 


The Certification Process

After election officials tally up votes at the local level, each state conducts a certification process, governed by state law, to verify those results. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a state’s certification of the results of an election is “always done at the state level by the chief election official of the state, the state board of elections or some other entity.”

Once the results are certified, each state will award its electors to the candidate who won in that state. However, Maine and Nebraska award their Electoral College votes proportionally rather than in full. 

Certification deadlines vary by state, but according to the Congressional Research Service, each state has a deadline to settle “controversies or contests over electors and electoral votes” six days before the 538-member Electoral College meets. In 2020, this date is Dec. 8. 

On Dec. 14, Electoral College delegations will vote by paper ballot in their respective states and in the nation’s capital. According to the Congressional Research Service, once those totals are established, certificates containing the results are delivered to the vice president (in that office’s capacity as president of the Senate), among other officials. 


The New Congress 

On Jan. 6 — just days after the new Congress is sworn in — the House and Senate will hold a joint session to count electoral votes and state the results. The winner — who receives 270 or more electoral votes — will be formally announced by the vice president. 

The next president and vice president will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2021.