*Australians are glued to the US Election, but how does it work? (Images: official campaign portraits)

After more than a year of campaigning, the day has come for the United States to decide between the incumbent President Donald Trump, and former Vice President Joe Biden. Central News reporter Kate Atkinson and Political Science student Matthew Wilson, explain some of the biggest issues around this year’s election.


Much is said about how the people of the United States do not vote for their President. Who can forget Hillary Clinton losing the 2016 election against Donald Trump, despite winning the “popular vote” by some three million thumbs up. But what does this mean?

It is because the members of the Electoral College, and by extension the states they represent, are directly responsible for electing the President.

Essentially, the Electoral College is a group of 538 people known as “electors” who vote for the President. These electors are then divided between the different states in a way that is similar to the varying populations they have. The numbers allocated to each state change after a census, if necessary.

These electors typically vote for the person who wins the most votes in their state. There are exceptions to this rule though, such as in Nebraska where two electors vote on that basis and the remaining three vote according to the candidate who gets the most votes in each of the three congressional districts.

Currently, a candidate would need a majority of 270 votes to become President. For this reason, states that don’t reliably vote for a particular party but have large numbers of electoral college votes are crucial to a candidate’s success.


Texas is normally a safe state for the Republicans. This is because Texans have elected a Republican as their preferred presidential candidate since 1980. While a Trump victory is still broadly being predicted by the polling data, the margins are a lot smaller than they normally are. This year they are at about two to three percent.

This is notable when comparing such small numbers to past Republican wins in Texas of 16% in 2012 and 12% in 2008. It is also more narrow than Trump’s 9% lead over Clinton in 2016.

Texas has also attracted much discussion on social media, particularly for this reason.

The way in which Texas is changing also complicates the race in the state. As the vote is so close, Trump and Biden are likely going to need to rely on the support of the 1.8 million new registered voters who have been welcomed into the state since the last election. Most importantly, 1.16 million people have moved into the cities and the suburbs of the state, which are more Democrat-leaning than their rural counterparts.

As a result, the state still represents 38 electoral college votes that Trump will hope he can rely on in the face of less favourable predictions in other states. However, there is a reasonable possibility of an upset in Texas, where Biden could be delivered a victory through very slight margins.


Over the last four years, the Republican party has transformed into the Trump party.

Many of the long-held Republican beliefs and policy platforms have been abandoned under Trump. The party that favoured free trade has backed Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on certain imported goods. Earlier this year, Trump threatened to impose high tariffs on car imports from the European Union.

Typically, Republicans have held a hard line against Russia, but Trump has maintained a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even after US intelligence agencies concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

Trump has become the focus of the Republican Party identity. David Smith, a Senior Lecturer in American Politics and Foreign Policy at the US Studies Centre writes that “the majority of Americans planning to vote for Trump will do so because they personally support him, while the majority of Biden voters are motivated by getting rid of Trump.”

Image of Donald Trump beside image of Joe Biden

(Images: Creative Commons)


Another good example of this happened back in August at the 2020 Republican National Convention. At these conventions, parties usually announce a new party platform that articulate its priorities ahead of the next election.

But this year, the Republican Party opted to simply reuse the one from 2016 and offered its total support for President Trump. The Republican National Committee said that the decision to reaffirm the 2016 platform was due to the pandemic and “in appreciation of the fact that it did not want a small contingent of delegates formulating a new platform.” However, this meant that the Party did not go through the traditional process of deciding which policies and principles would define Republicans in 2020.

In effect, this decision formalised a process that’s been evident for the last five years: that the main policy of the Republican party is to support Donald Trump.


Postal votes are going to play a more important role in this year’s election.

In the past, voters were generally only allowed to mail their votes if they had an eligible reason, for example, if they were out of the country or in hospital. A small number of states, such as Oregon or Washington, also have universal postal voting systems, in which ballots are automatically mailed to the homes of registered voters.

Due to COVID-19, however, there has been a huge increase in postal voting for this election.

Dr Sarah John is an adjunct professor at Flinders University who focuses on the US electoral system. She says that a lot of states have removed requirements for postal ballots or added “fear of contracting COVID-19” to the list of eligible reasons.

There have been more than 62 million mail-in ballots so far, according to a count by the US Elections Project at the University of Florida. That’s almost double the number of postal votes counted in the 2016 election.

Generally, postal votes are sent via the United States Postal Service (USPS) to processing stations, where they are verified before they are counted.

Postal votes are verified by the local county administration, which makes sure the voter’s signature on the outside of the ballot matches the signature on file with the election office.

Those that do not match are automatically rejected.

Postal votes can also be rejected if they arrive late or if they violate the secrecy of the ballot. For example, in Pennsylvania, mail-in voters must put their ballot in a secrecy envelope and put that secrecy envelope in the return envelope. If ballots are missing their secrecy envelope, then they can be rejected too.

In some states, such as Florida and North Carolina, ballots can start to be counted once they are verified. In other states, such as Pennsylvania, verified ballots cannot be opened and counted until election day.

Mail-in voting and the USPS have become the subject of intense criticism from Donald Trump after the President said that postal votes led to increased voter fraud. However, Joe Biden and the Democrats argued that Trump has undermined the USPS and blocked funding for the postal service as a way to suppress voter turnout.



Dr Sarah John says that fears around voter fraud have largely been proven false and that there have been very few instances of fraud in the states that have used universal mail-in voting in the past.

Dr John says it’s hard to know what Trump’s actual motivations are, but she suspects that he wants to shed doubt on an unfavourable election result.

“I don’t necessarily think Trump will refuse to leave the White House if he loses, but I do think the narrative of an election stolen by “fraudulent” or “bad” mail-in ballots will be key to explaining the loss to his supporters.”


The result of the election is usually called on the same night, November 3.

A full count is never completed on election night, but generally enough votes are counted to determine a winner. In 2016, Donald Trump claimed victory at approximately 2.45am (US EST) the morning after election day.


This year, it’s likely that we won’t know who has been elected president on election night.

The higher number of postal ballots and early voting due to the pandemic means that some states could take days or weeks to fully count their votes.

However, its possible key states like Florida or Ohio could be called early depending on how close the results are, because the process of counting postal votes started weeks ago.

Donald Trump has also been critical of the expected delay in voting results.

Earlier this week, US media outlet Axios reported that President Trump told close confidants he intended to declare victory on election night if it looked like he was ahead.

Trump denied the report, but he has repeatedly declared that the results of the election must be known on election night, falsely claiming that “that’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it should be.”

Regardless of when the results of the election are announced, the next President won’t take office until January 2021.


– Matthew Wilson, Kate Atkinson and Lucy Tassell