US presidential election: How the votes are counted

This year, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, voting by mail has soared. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - The US President is not elected by a majority of the popular vote. Under the Constitution, the candidate who wins the majority of 538 electors, known as the Electoral College, becomes the next president.

Here is the information about the voting process.

What's needed to win the presidency?

Rather than vote directly for their presidential candidate of choice, Americans actually vote for 538 electors who then elect the president and vice-president.

Each elector represents one vote. To win the White House, a candidate must take an absolute majority of electoral votes, making 270 the magic number.

When are the votes counted?

In-person votes are tabulated automatically, and in most cases are ready to announce within hours or even minutes of polls closing.

This year, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, voting by mail has soared. More than 80 million mail-in ballots have been sent to voters by mid-October, more than twice as many as in the whole of 2016.

Many states have begun to process mail-in ballots before Election Day, but they cannot release vote counts until polls close in the precincts or voting districts.

How are votes counted?

Once the polls close, ballots cast on Election Day are sent from the precincts to regional counting centres.

As the precincts' ballots are being tallied, many counties will release an "initial vote count" that consists of early in-person votes and the earliest mail-in ballots.

This year, many states have allotted extra time prior to Election Day to handle the predicted surge in mail-in votes, though some states do not start processing or counting absentee ballots until Election Day itself.

When a precinct's ballots have been counted, the results are added to the initial vote count and the precinct is said to have "reported."

Will there be delays in tallying votes?

Some states, including the battlegrounds Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, do not allow mail-in ballots to be counted until Election Day, which means it can potentially take weeks to tally all the votes.

A county clerk will release an unofficial tally after all the available votes have been counted on election night, then the numbers are double- or triple-checked in a process called canvassing.

Red herring?

The surge in mail-in votes may also give a false, initial impression of a Democratic or Republican lead in some of the most competitive states.

Polls show that mail-in ballots largely favour former vice-president Joe Biden, so states like Florida and North Carolina that count those votes first may appear to be swinging early towards the Democrat.

Conversely, in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, President Donald Trump may appear to take an early lead. These so-called red or blue mirages will disappear as the night goes on and more ballots are counted.

How do the media report on the vote count?

Traditionally, US television networks and media outlets keep track of the percentage of precincts that have reported to give people an idea of how much of the vote in a county has been tallied.

However, that metric is less useful when there is a large volume of mail-in ballots, which often do not reflect the precinct the voter is from.

Some news organisations have decided to present live results as a percentage of the total expected votes in a county, rather than as a percentage of precincts that have reported. The total expected votes is calculated by including mail-in ballots, early in-person votes, turnout forecasts and other data.

Some news organisations like the Associated Press have teams of election experts, referred to as decision desks, to analyse exit polls and voting results as the night progresses. They will call a race when they believe the data shows a trailing candidate cannot overcome an opponent's lead.

In many states, historical voting trends combined with exit polling are so compelling that even though a very low percentage of votes have been counted, the state will be called for a candidate.

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