Presidential son-in-law and White House fix-it-man Jared Kushner raised some eyebrows yet again when he told Time Magazine it was “too far in the future” to tell if Election Day would have to be moved because of the pandemic – comments that suggested it might be a possibility later on.
White House officials responded by saying, correctly, that it’s up to Congress to set the date of the presidential election.
Election Day was set by Congress back in 1845 – it’s always the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
US elections used to drag on, taking more than a month, until Congress mandated the uniform date. That wasn’t a problem because voters technically don’t pick the President that day. They pick electors who go on to pick the President via a vote in the Electoral College.
Electors meet in state capitols and vote in December. The 20th Amendment requires a new Congress take office on January 3 every other year and that a new presidential term starts on January 20 every four years. Those dates would be harder to move.
What’s the Electoral College?
Americans who go to the polls on Election Day are voting for 538 electors who, according to the system laid out by the Constitution, meet in their respective states and vote for president and vice president. Back in the 1800s, it wasn’t always even voters who picked the electors. Often it was state legislators.
These people, the electors, comprise the Electoral College, and their votes are then counted in a joint session of Congress.
It takes 270 electoral votes to get a majority of the Electoral College. The total number of electors – 538 – cannot change unless there are more lawmakers added on Capitol Hill or a constitutional amendment. But the number of electors allocated to each state can change every 10 years, after the constitutionally mandated Census.
How does a President get elected?
Each state gets at least 3 electors. California, the most populous state, has 53 congressmen and two senators, so they get 55 electoral votes.
Texas, the largest reliably Republican-leaning state, has 36 congressmen and two senators, so they get 38 electoral votes.
Six states – Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming – are so small, population-wise, that they only have one congressperson apiece, and the lowest possible three electoral votes. The District of Columbia also gets three electoral votes. Voters in Puerto Rico and other non-state territories get no electoral votes, although they can take part in presidential primaries.
The states are in charge of selecting their own electors. And a number of states do not require their electors to honor the election results, which has led, occasionally, to the phenomenon known as a “faithless elector.” (By some coincidence, the Supreme Court is right now hearing cases about whether states can penalize “faithless” electors who vote for someone other than the person chosen by the voters. Ten electors did just that in 2016.)
What will change because of the pandemic?
So things have changed a lot over time, but not Election Day. It’s been set as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November for more than 150 years. Both President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have said clearly that this year’s election must happen November 3, regardless of a Covid-19 resurgence in the fall.
But there’s been a lot of discussion recently about how people should vote.
And while federal law sets when presidential Election Day occurs, it leaves the particulars over to the states. That’s led to some bad history of voter suppression and allegations of that continue to this day.
There’s a patchwork of primaries that give us ballot options. Multiple states delayed their primaries. Ultimately, every state’s ballot on Election Day will be slightly different.
There is precedent for voting during a pandemic. In 1918, midterm elections were held, although turnout was down quite a bit – there was also a war going on. Republicans that year seized control of both the House and Senate from President Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats.
Trump is a big backer of voter ID laws. And he thinks that people “cheat” when they can vote by mail.
There’s no evidence of widespread cheating in the five US states that entirely vote by mail. Most states allow absentee voting.
When Trump alleged there is cheating during mail-in voting, he was specifically talking about efforts to postpone the primary in Wisconsin. The primary went ahead and more than 50 people who later tested positive for Covid-19 said they had voted in-person.