It is a complex process. Many have called for scrapping the Electoral College completely. Many submit that its origins—and initial purpose—was a compromise made to satisfy and empower southern slaveowners. Some have also pointed out that, according to studies that have crunched the numbers, it is actually possible to be elected as president with less than 22% of people actually voting for you. There are also various other reasons that some have considered the move to a different system. However disputed the system itself, it is the system we have.
Initially, the system allows for voting in various ways, all of which are legitimate. There is in-person voting, in which a registered voter goes in-person to the polls and casts their ballot. Then there is Mail-In Voting and Absentee Ballots, in which a voter may vote by submitting their ballot in the mail after being sent a ballot by the government. In the past, these ballots were given for specific reasons, sometimes due to military enlistment or health concerns. Voting this way has taken place since as early as the Civil War. As far back as March, states began discussing the possibility of expanding mail-in voting for the general election. Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, the states allowed expanded voting-by-mail in order to stop the spread of the virus at the voting booths, and to preserve the health of the many voters for whom Coronavirus presented a very real threat of death. It seems that this certainly had an effect on voter turnout, as the 2020 election had a higher voter turnout than any election since the 1900 election, in which William McKinley was elected president.
No matter how people voted, the voting itself was concluded on election day, but the counting of the votes continues on, sometimes long after. There seemed to be some confusion on this point, with people accusing states of allowing “late” votes, despite those states having restrictions on when they could even begin counting votes, even going to some great lengths to invalidate votes counted before and after election day. There has been some talk about allowing absentee ballots to be counted before the day of the election, but this is not a widespread practice. In general, the results of the election are not 100% certain on the day of the election.
After the votes are counted, each state certifies its winner, and the electoral votes for that state are added to the respective candidate’s total. The first candidate to 270 votes is the winner. How do states certify a candidate though, and what happens if the election is contested? For example, in the famed Bush v. Gore election of 2000, the entire balance of the election was determined by a single state: Florida. The winner of Florida would win the election. A recount was requested, the Supreme Court stopped the recount from happening, and Congress certified George W. Bush as the President in January of 2001.
Recounts happen. Refusing to concede until it is certain is common. However, it is rare for an election with such a disparity of votes (306-232) to be so hotly contested and left unconceded. It is rare for election lawsuits and recounts to change the result of the vote at all, much less by 74 electoral votes.
Yet, this was exactly what President Trump tried to do, and he laid the groundwork for it early in 2020. The attempted invalidation of voting would be worked out through the Courts, through Twitter, and through oral statements from the President himself. This included suing to invalidate more votes — conveniently — in multiple states where Trump’s margin of victory was dwindling and then diminished entirely. These lawsuits have been denied at their outset, with some judges eviscerating Trump’s legal teams for bringing baseless claims. One judge said it this way: "One might expect that when seeking such a startling outcome, a plaintiff would come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption. That has not happened."
The thing is, there are ways to change the outcome of an election, but unless you’re asking for a recount in specific states (each of which has different rules for when that triggers and who can even request it), all other recourse is set in stone long before the results come out, specifically in order to prevent the exact scenario occurring right now: picking which states you want to recount or allege fraud in to improperly benefit one campaign over the other.
There is a process for picking new electors, however, this process has already been done, and the choice was made—in the event of a contested election—to have the electors vote with the popular choice, which would not change the result. In fact, under Federal Law, Electors are set in stone by November 3, and to attempt to change them after the fact would not only allow for election manipulation, but would be illegal and potentially unconstitutional. Electors can always be “faithless” and vote for a different candidate than the people chose, but this has never decided an election, and over 99 percent of chosen electors in U.S. History have voted in a manner consistent with the voice of the people.
All in all, despite the reluctance to declare a winner, based on how the system is structured there are no avenues available to overturn the election as it stands. The process is confusing, but there’s nothing confusing about 306 electoral votes. The only thing the current president is accomplishing by delaying the proceedings is, well, just that, delaying the inevitable. Whatever your political affiliation, the system worked despite a pandemic, despite unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud, and despite the president even suggesting delays to the election back in March. However imperfect, however complicated, the system did what it was supposed to do: to facilitate electing a president that is, in the words of Abraham Lincoln “of the people, by the people, for the people.”