Geraldine Sizemore's mask urged people to vote. Photo by Heidi Randhava

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Former Vice President Joe Biden led in the popular vote by more than four million votes just before midnight on Nov. 5. But it came down to five battleground states, where the winner was too close to call more than 48 hours after the polls closed on Nov. 3, and that created a path for Joe Biden to get the  270 electoral votes needed to win the presidential election. The margins in the pivotal states of Georgia and Pennsylvania were described as “razor thin,” laughably tight” and “too close to call” by the media.

It was an election like no other. Votes were still being counted in the early hours of Nov. 6, most of which were postal ballots cast by voters who chose to avoid polling places during the coronavirus pandemic. Illinois allows all registered voters to request a mail ballot.

For many states, it was the first time voters could request a mail-in ballot without a specific reason.

Despite the myriad challenges of a surging pandemic, a record turnout was projected by Washington Post and Edison Research modeling systems. If their projections hold, 2020 turnout will be the highest since 1900, when 73.7% of eligible Americans cast ballots, according to a The Washington Post article by Kevin Schaul, Kate Rabinowitz and Ted Mellnik, updated Nov. 6 at 12:40 a.m.

Uncounted votes and tiny margins of less than one percentage point kept Americans on pins and needles more than 48 hours after polls closed on Nov. 3.

Going back to the beginning of the 20th century, it is rare for incumbent presidents to lose reelection bids. Most recently, President Barack Obama, President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton were all reelected to second terms. Going back to the reelection of William McKinley in 1900, every incumbent (Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge) was reelected until Herbert Hoover was defeated in a landslide by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

America has become increasingly polarized over the past four years, which is reflected in the stark differences in how voters viewed the 2020 election process. Trump campaign fraud claims were viewed with skepticism in the courts. Legal challenges in Michigan and Georgia were rejected by judges.

Although there is no singular way to guarantee a free and fair election, there are clear standards in place for election integrity. These include appointed, trained election observers that promote transparency and ensure that rules and procedures are followed, and that no political party or candidate is disadvantaged.

Voter Suppression

Despite the many safeguards in place, voter suppression can and does occur. Research has shown Black and Latinx voters in particular face more barriers to voting than others.

America’s history of limiting access to the polls goes back to its inception. Congress did not always enforce the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, which prohibited states “from disenfranchising voters’ on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It took more than a century for the state of Tennessee to formally ratify the amendment in 1997.

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” did not guarantee Black women the right to vote when it was ratified 100 years ago.

Jim Crow laws in Southern states included literacy tests that were not required for white voters, and poll taxes that continued into the 1960’s in some states.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many Southern states after the Civil War. The law was the life’s work of the late Congressman John Lewis, who was widely known as “the conscience of the Congress.” Yet the formula at the heart of the landmark law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, which is a clear indicator that there is still much work to be done to ensure that American voters are not discriminated against.

Electoral College Votes in December

The Electoral College, most of whose members are charged with voting according to the popular vote of their state, will meet on Dec. 14 to cast their votes. Electors meet in their own states.

One copy of each signed ballot is sent to the president of the U.S. Senate, the Vice President of the U.S. Another copy is sent to the Secretary of State of each set of electors and the presiding judge in the district where the electors meet. Still another copy will go to the National Archives and Records Administration.

The copies sent to the Senate are officially counted; the copies sent to the presiding judges are back-up copies.

The president of the Senate must receive the electors’ ballots by Dec. 23, although there is no penalty for missing the deadline. Congress will meet in in joint session on Jan. 6, 2021, to count the electoral votes. Inauguration day is Jan. 20, 2021.