In the wake of the contested 2020 election, many questions have been asked about the official rules for announcing the winner of presidential elections and the goals of ongoing lawsuits regarding vote counts in various states. Contested elections usually occur when various irregularities, fraud, or incompetence are alleged. This leads to lawsuits being filed by presidential campaigns or political parties against individual states to see the accepted vote totals changed by court decisions. Presidential campaigns alone are not restricted in filing lawsuits in these cases, as state political parties have also filed lawsuits on behalf of their candidates.
Lawsuits to block states from certifying vote counts are often directed at various parts of state governments, ranging from the secretary of state to county election officials. Campaigns often file lawsuits at multiple levels of government to prevent or discourage state officials from officially declaring the winner of their state’s votes in the Electoral College. Typically, these lawsuits are backed by testimonies of election fraud or improper ballot-counting taking place that judges base their decisions on.
Recount efforts take place either at the request of a presidential campaign or automatically based on state law. The margin of victory usually has to be very small for states with automatic recounts to initiate the process, and these recounts are performed in various ways. States like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Arizona trigger automatic recounts when the results are incredibly close. At the same time, most other states in the country must permit a recount to occur at the expense of a candidate or their party with court approval.
A notable example of recount requirements is Wisconsin’s recount in the 2016 presidential election. The Green Party candidate Jill Stein filed a lawsuit pushing for a manual recount of all ballots. Stein seemed to act on behalf of Hillary Clinton, especially since Stein had no chance of winning the election, but Stein’s case was supported by academics and election specialists who argued that Wisconsin’s voting system was prone to flaws, pushing the judge to order a manual recount of all the votes.
The Trump campaign filed lawsuits to stop the recount, citing precedent from the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, but was denied. The Stein campaign also filed lawsuits for recounts in Pennsylvania and Michigan that were denied or stopped by judges at different levels. At its essence, the legal standard judges use to rule on election cases seems to be whether overwhelming evidence demonstrates a voting system failure or clear example of election fraud that took place. Without meeting at least some of these criteria, election lawsuits stand no chance in front of a judge.
Ultimately, the winner of our presidential elections is not officially declared until January of the following year. States must certify their results six days before the Electoral College’s first meeting on December 14. By this time, election controversies generated from lawsuits and recount efforts are meant to be finished in time for the Electoral College to meet and have its members cast their ballots for president. After the vote certification deadline on December 8, any electors can theoretically have their votes challenged by Congress, which is why states are bent on meeting the certification deadline in election years. By December 23, all state electors should have submitted their votes to Congress in time for the new Congressional session to count the votes for president on January 6 and name the new president.
Ultimately, many steps still need to occur before a winner is certified in the most recent election. Although the media has a habit of calling the presumptive winner president-elect, it would technically be improper to use that title until Congress announces the winner of the election. Until this deadline, debates regarding the election’s validity are open and legitimate and up to our court system to handle and decide.