A presidential election follows a formal process with several steps from November 3rd to January 20th. Each step from voting to inauguration has a legally specified date. Usually, we don’t pay much attention to these formalities. But if an election is contested, these steps, and their deadlines become essential to when and how disputes get resolved.
The key dates for the 2020 election are:
- September 19 to November 2, 2020: Early voting. Each state sets their start date for early voting. Check: https://www.vote.org/early-voting-calendar/
- November 2, 2020: Mail-in ballots are due in North Dakota. Mail-in votes in Alabama and Ohio must be postmarked on or before this day.
- November 3, 2020: Election Day. Voting ends when the polls close in each state. Swing states Pennsylvania and Wisconsin finally begin counting their mail-in ballots. Most other states will already have begun counting.
- November 3–17, 2020: The deadlines to receive mail-in ballots vary by state. Some states require ballots to be received by Election Day, but Alaska and Utah will accept them up to two weeks later if ballots were postmarked on Election Day. States to watch include Nevada, which will accept mail-in ballots up until November 10, and Ohio, which will accept ballots up to November 13.
- December 8, 2020: This is the deadline for, every state to finalize which candidate won their electoral votes and which electors they will send to the Electoral College. It is known as the Safe Harbor deadline.
- December 14, 2020: The members of the Electoral College meet in their state capitols to vote for the President and Vice President.
- January 3, 2021: The 117th Congress convenes, with newly elected members taking their seats.
- January 6, 2021: Electoral votes are formally counted before a joint session of the new Congress. If no candidate wins a majority, Congress will vote on a president, with one vote per House delegation. The Senate would vote separately for the Vice President.
- January 20, 2021: Inauguration Day. If no President or Vice President has been elected by this date, the Speaker of the House of Representatives temporarily becomes president until the election can be resolved.
Dates for Election Day, the Safe Harbor deadline, the Electoral College meeting, and the Congress to count the Electoral College’s vote are set by Congress. They can only be changed if the House, Senate and President all agree.
The dates for Congress to convene and the President to be inaugurated are set by the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. They cannot be changed without a formal amendment process.