US President Donald Trump has been refusing to concede defeat in the 2020 presidential election on the basis that it is not for the media to call victory for his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
The President’s position is legally correct. Until states certify the final result and appoint delegates to the Electoral College, no result is final.
But it is a position that also ignores the reality that in most states, almost every vote has been counted and reported. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have been “called” by the media and political observers. There are not enough outstanding votes in these jurisdictions to change the winning candidate.
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In the critical state of Pennsylvania, knowledge of the number of outstanding postal votes, the party registration of the voters and the county in which the votes have been cast make it impossible to overturn the current Democrat lead. The Democrat lead has also passed the point where a re-count is automatic.
There has been legal dispute in Pennsylvania over postal votes postmarked before election day but received after the day. By Supreme Court ruling, these votes have been isolated in the count from other ballot papers. Their number is not sufficient if disallowed to overturn the Democrat lead.
If the result in Pennsylvania is certain, then so is the result of the Presidential election.(AP: Gene J. Puskar)
Pennsylvania is the critical state whose 20 electoral college votes have given Joe Biden more than the 270 votes he needs to be elected President. If the result in Pennsylvania is certain, then so is the result of the election.
That is unless Pennsylvania’s state congress tries to stretch the Constitution to breaking point and ignore the result and instead appoints Electoral College delegates who will vote for Trump.
There is also the possibility of “faithless voters” pledged Electoral College delegates who vote against the instructions given to them by voters at the election.
But if Trump is clinging to some chicanery in the electoral college as a path to retaining office, that possibility will be snuffed out by Democrat victories in any of the four outstanding states.
It will also be snuffed out if his own Republican Party refuses to countenance tinkering with the accepted norms of presidential elections.
Only four states remain in doubt
At this stage only four states remain in doubt. Both Alaska and North Carolina look likely to back Trump, the delay in those states being called is down to slow counts caused by later cut-off dates for postal votes.
In the other two outstanding states, Arizona and Georgia, Biden leads the count, but not by enough to see universal agreement on calling the result.
There’s enough confidence in the result in states that have been called to say for certain that Joe Biden will be the next President.(Reuters: Jonathan Ernst)
Arizona has been declared by some media outlets and political observers, but not by others. The difference in call is simply a difference of opinion on whether the number of outstanding votes is enough to overturn Biden’s lead.
If Arizona backs Biden, his electoral college vote will reach 290, more than enough to overcome a few faithless voters.
Georgia has yet to be decided because Biden’s lead is narrow and some votes remain to be counted. In addition, Biden’s lead is so small that it triggers an automatic re-count.
A recount has also been requested in Wisconsin, but in neither state is a re-count likely to shift many votes. Ballot papers are simply re-scanned and, except where a ballot paper does not scan properly and there is dispute over marking, the new count will be little different from the original tally.
‘Calling’ vs. ‘declaring’
In the end, Trump’s decision not to concede defeat comes down to the issue of whether a result is “called” or “declared”.
Anyone who has watched media coverage of a United Kingdom election will have seen the quaint ceremony in which the returning officer stands on stage, reads out the votes recorded for each candidate, and declares one of them to be the duly elected member.
The media plays no part in “calling” a constituency’s result, though the media may call the overall election winner.
Donald Trump spent the past two days golfing in Sterling, Virginia.
Election night declarations are possible in the United Kingdom as all votes are brought to one place for counting. All postal votes must be under the control of the returning officer for the count, and no progressive reports of the result are released.
But in countries that inherited their electoral procedures from the United Kingdom, this quaint counting practice was abandoned a century ago. In both Australia and the United States, votes are counted remotely, progressive counts are reported, and the media call comes at the point where the result is clear from the progressive totals.
With counting done remotely, it is not possible for a winner to be officially declared until all the paperwork concerning the count can be brought together and verified.
In the case of Australia, that means every vote is counted a second time under the supervision of the returning officer. After the first preference count has been verified, the uniquely Australian practice of distributing preferences to determine the winner takes place.
Trump’s refusal looks like desperate denial
Analysing is made much easier in Australia by Electoral Commissions, which report results in an electronic feed to the media.
In the United States, there is no equivalent of the Electoral Commission. Each county in each state reports its results separately. Media organisations such as the Associated Press accumulate these county level results and on-sell the data to broadcasters and publishers.
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The ABC purchased result data and projected calls from the Associated Press for its election coverage.
Once all the county level results are accumulated, and all material related to the conduct and verification of the count brough together in an official return, the state congress certifies the result as correct. This is the point when the winner is declared according to law and delegates are appointed to vote for the winning candidate at the meeting of the Electoral College.
A called result is one where the media, candidates, parties and observers accept that what we know from the progressive result is enough to “call” them a winner.
As it stands, there is enough confidence in the result in states that have been called to say for certain that Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States.
Trump is within his rights to delay conceding until results are officially declared. But on the progressive results available, refusing to concede defeat at this stage looks like a desperate denial of the election result.
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