• COVID-19 has led to a rise in early and mail-in voting.
  • Experts predict higher voter turnout than in the 2016 election.
  • Here's how the election works - and when we'll know the outcome.

Nov. 3, 2020, is election day in the United States, and Americans across the country have already started casting their ballots to choose their next president and vice president, along with members of Congress, governors and local officials.

Here are some commonly asked questions about the election and what to expect.

How has COVID-19 affected the election?

Historically, the vast majority of the American electorate votes in three ways: in-person on election day, early in-person or absentee, also known as vote-by-mail. COVID-19 and the associated concerns and restrictions on large in-person gatherings have caused election officials across the country to shift priorities and resources to ensure Americans can safely cast their votes.

The biggest change for many voting Americans this year is the rise in absentee voting and vote-by-mail. Some version of mail-in voting had traditionally been available in every state prior to the pandemic, but the practice has been greatly expanded this year.

Nine states, plus the District of Columbia, have proactively sent ballots to all registered voters ahead of the election, while another 34 have instituted “no excuse” policies, allowing anyone to vote absentee. In total, The New York Times predicts 75% of registered American voters will be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail this year, with more than 87 million ballots sent thus far.

Additionally, voters worried about the safety of traditional election-day operations are turning up at early-voting locations in significant numbers. Forty-three states, plus D.C., offer some version of early voting, which allows individuals to cast their vote in-person before election day. Long lines around the country indicate a dramatic rise in early voting this year, as more and more Americans try to avoid the typical crowds of election day.

According to the US Election Project, more than 80 million early and absentee votes have been reported as of Oct. 30, easily surpassing the 58 million counted in all of 2016. These numbers are expected to continue to rise as voters take extra precautions to ensure their vote is safely counted.

How will this impact overall voter turnout?

Though these dramatic shifts in early and mail voting make it difficult to forecast overall election turnout, political experts are predicting higher numbers than 2016 and other recent elections. Popular polling and analysis website FiveThirtyEight, as well as the US Elections Project, predict turnout to be around 65% of the voting-eligible population, which would be the highest since 1908 and significantly higher than the 61.4% turnout from 2016.

Nearly 240 million Americans are currently of age and eligible to vote, so if predictions come true, more than 150 million votes will be cast this cycle.

Image: United States Election Project

How is the winner determined?

The US uses the Electoral College system for determining who becomes president. The framers of the US Constitution placed great importance on checks and balances on power, and the system helped preserve the rights of individual states while protecting an independent executive branch. To put it in context, the country had just won its independence from the British monarchy, and the framers had to design a new system for a new country whose people had never before elected a national leader.

Alexander Hamilton outlined the rational for the Electoral College in one of the Federalist Papers (no 68): It was thought to be a failsafe, an obstacle "opposed to cabal, intrigue and corruption." Essentially, the system was created as a compromise between electing representatives by a popular vote and a vote in Congress, though of note, its popularity among Americans has waned in the past few decades.

The candidate with the most votes in a state usually becomes the winner of the Electoral College’s votes for that state (with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, who use a district-by-district allocation). The number of Electoral College votes allocated to each state is calculated by adding the number of senators (each state has two), plus the number of delegates the state has in the House of Representatives (which varies based on population). For example, Massachusetts has 11 electoral votes in the Electoral College (2 Senators + 9 Representatives); Hawaii has four. In total, there are currently 538 electoral votes, and to become president, a candidate must win an absolute majority, or at least 270 of electoral votes (the District of Colombia has 3 Electoral College votes but no voting representation in Congress since it is a district and not a state).

If no candidate wins an absolute majority of Electoral College votes, the House of Representatives votes to pick a winner. This has happened twice before, in 1800 to settle an Electoral College tie, and in 1824 when a three-way split prevented any candidate from reaching an absolute electoral college majority.

Five presidents, including current President Donald Trump, have failed to win the popular vote, but have secured enough Electoral College votes to become president.

What are the major states to watch?

According to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, there are 13 states or electoral districts that are considered a "toss-up" or only slightly leaning toward one presidential candidate or another. They are: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine (2nd District), Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska (2nd District), Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. These 13 represent a combined 201 electoral votes, so be sure to keep an eye on their results on election night and beyond.

Will we know the winner on election night?

Probably not. State-by-state results are typically “called” by a variety of election analysts, such as the Associated Press, using vote counts, demographics and regional statistics. The surge in early and mail-in voting will make calling states on election night much more difficult. The timing of counting absentee and early votes varies by state, with some states counting and reporting these votes in advance of election day, and others waiting until after in-person votes have been tallied.

Additionally, some states count mail-in ballots for weeks after election day, as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3, so it could take some time to receive and count many ballots. It is likely that several results, especially those in close swing states, won’t arrive until late in the evening or even later that week. Recounts or legal action could delay results even further.

States are required to "certify" their election results within a few weeks of election day, which entails final counting, verification and presentation of vote totals. On Dec. 14, state electors meet to officially cast their votes, and a Joint Session of Congress will be convened on January 6, 2021, to count electoral votes and officially declare results. In 2000, a winner wasn't declared until mid-December. Either Joe Biden or Donald Trump will be officially sworn in as President at noon ET on January 20, 2021.

The Supreme Court has been in the news a lot lately. How could that come into play?

After the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September, much of the political conversation in the US has focused on the precedent for President Trump and the US Senate confirming her replacement, Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Yet the court and its newly confirmed justice could be thrown almost immediately into a different spotlight if they are asked to decide the election.

As the nation’s highest court, the Supreme Court could be called on to decide a variety of matters, including those related to emergency electoral process changes made in a variety of states. The court was famously called in 2000 to help decide litigation in Florida, a key swing state that would have tipped the final election toward either Democrat Al Gore or Republican George Bush. The Court ruled in Bush’s favor in mid-December, giving him the necessary votes to prevail in the electoral college and become the 43rd US president.

According to the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, more than 300 cases in more than 44 states have been filed related to election law and COVID-19, and any one (in addition to those related to election-day activities) could trigger action in the Supreme Court.

How are young people being affected?

Both parties typically struggle to drive younger Americans to vote. In 2016, just 46.1% of registered voters age 18-29 cast a vote, the lowest percentage of any surveyed age range.

But youth enthusiasm and activism has skyrocketed in the past few years, and experts expect near-record turnout this year. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics study found 63% of respondents age 18-29 say they will “definitely be voting in November,” a dramatic increase from the 47% who responded positively in 2016.