Election Day is over, but the legal mechanisms that lead from Election Day to Inauguration Day have just begun.
Americans who went to the polls on Election Day didn't actually select the president directly. They were technically voting for 538 electors who, according to the system laid out by the Constitution, will meet in their respective states and vote for president and vice president once the popular vote totals are completely counted and certified.
These electors are collectively referred to as the Electoral College, and their votes are then forwarded to the President of the Senate, who counts them in a joint session of Congress after the new year.
Here's a timeline of what happens before Inauguration Day and key dates to look out for:
Nov. 4 – Nov. 23: Votes are counted
Mail-in ballots had to be postmarked by Nov. 3 in every US state, but they can be received late and still counted in many states. In most cases, they had to be received within a day or two of Election Day. But in Washington state, mail-in ballots could be received as late as Nov. 23.
Nov. 10 – Dec. 11: States certify election results
Each state does it a little bit differently, but starting a week after Election Day, state governments began to certify their election results. Those deadlines can change in the event of a state recount if there is an extremely close result.
Dec. 8: "Safe harbor" to determine election results and assign electors
Under the Electoral Count Act, this is the date by which states are meant to have counted votes, settled disputes, and determined the winner of their electoral college votes. Governors are supposed to create certificates of ascertainment listing the winner of the election and the slate of electors.
In 2000, the Supreme Court ended a targeted recount in Florida because it could not be completed by this safe harbor date. That recount would not have changed the outcome of the election, but a full statewide recount could have made Al Gore president. This is when it could become very important for Republicans that they control more state legislatures than Democrats, including in most of the contested 2020 battleground states.
Dec. 14: Electoral votes are cast.
In law, this date is the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. This year it falls on Dec. 14. Six days after disputes are supposed to be settled, electors are supposed to meet in their respective states and cast votes for US President. They certify six sets of votes and send them to Washington. Many states have laws requiring their electors to support the winner of their state's election and can levy fines against faithless electors who go their own way.
Dec. 23: Electoral votes must arrive in Washington.
The certified electoral votes have nine days to get from their states to Capitol Hill.
Jan. 3: New Congress is sworn in
Members of the House and new members of the Senate take the oath of office at noon. This is the official start of the 117th Congress.
Jan. 6: Electoral votes are counted
Members of the House and the Senate all meet in the House chamber. The President of the Senate (that’s Vice President Mike Pence) presides over the session and the Electoral votes are read and counted in alphabetical order by two appointees each from the House and Senate. They then give their tallies to Pence, who announces the results and listens for objections.
If there are objections or if there are, somehow, multiple slates of electors put forward by a state, the House and Senate consider them separately to decide how to count those votes.
There are 538 electoral votes – one for each congressman and senator plus three for Washington, DC. If no candidate gets 270, the 435 members of the House decide the election. Each state gets a vote.
While there are more Democrats in the House, Republicans, as of now, control more state delegations, so it is very possible the House could pick Donald Trump even though there is a Democratic majority. It requires a majority of state votes to become President. The House has until noon on January 20 to pick the President. If they can't, it would be the vice president or the next person eligible in the line of presidential succession.
Jan. 20: Inauguration Day
A new president takes the oath of office at noon. If the President-elect dies between Election Day and Inauguration, the vice president-elect takes the oath of office and becomes President.
In a disputed election, if the House has not chosen a President but the Senate has chosen a vice president, the vice president-elect becomes acting president until the House makes a choice. And if there's no president-elect and no vice president-elect, the House appoints a president until one is chosen.