Brought to you by Newscorp Australia

US election: How does it work and what could happen?

Anne Barrowclough and Donna Coutts, November 3, 2020 7:00PM The Australian

Print Article

This combination of pictures shows Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden at a drive-in event in Coconut Creek, Florida, on October 29, 2020 and US President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at Green Bay, Wisconsin on October 30, 2020. Picture: AFP media_cameraThis combination of pictures shows Democratic presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden at a drive-in event in Coconut Creek, Florida, on October 29, 2020 and US President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at Green Bay, Wisconsin on October 30, 2020. Picture: AFP


Reading level: red

This year’s presidential election is one of the most watched in US election history – regardless of whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden is the winner.

Here’s a guide to what will and could happen.

The US presidential election is held every four years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. This year’s election is held on Tuesday, November 3 US time (Wednesday November 4 AEDT*).

There are two main political parties in the US: the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. The Republican Party has chosen Donald Trump to represent it and the Democratic Party has chosen Joe Biden.

Mr Trump chose current Vice President Mike Pence as his running mate and Mr Biden chose Senator Kamala Harris. These running mates would become vice president if they’re on the winning team.

The Republicans use red as their colour (for instance for signs, logos, T-shirts and flags). States that usually vote mostly Republican are called red states. The Democrats use blue as their colour and states that usually vote mostly Democrats are called blue states.

States where voting is very close or that change between Republican and Democrat each election are called swing states.

media_cameraUS Vice President Mike Pence (left) speaking during a “Make America Great Again!” campaign event Michigan, on October 22, 2020 and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris (right) speaking at a campaign stop in Michigan. Picture: AFP

People in all 50 states and in the capital city of Washington DC (not a state, but the District of Columbia) get to vote. Generally, to be eligible to vote you need to be a US citizen, aged 18 or older and be registered to vote. There are also some state-specific eligibility rules.

Unlike in Australia, voting is not compulsory. In recent elections, about 55 per cent of the voting-age population voted.

People can vote before the election or on election day.

This year, partly because of the coronavirus pandemic, a record number of Americans have voted early, many by mailing in their vote. By November 3 (Australian time), more than 97 million (of about 255 million people of voting age) had already voted – more than half of the total number of people who voted in 2016.

Donald Trump has been claiming that mail-in voting is prone* to fraud*. While that claim is questionable*, it is true that the large number of postal ballots could cause delays in the final count.

media_cameraSupporters of US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden during various campaign rallies in key states between October 29-31, 2020. Pictures: AFP

When Americans vote, they’re actually voting to elect a group of people who make up what is called the electoral college. College means a group of people with a shared task: in this case to choose the president and vice president.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden are competing to get the highest number of people (called electors) on their side within the electoral college, which translates to the highest number of electoral college votes. There are 538 electoral votes available and whoever wins a majority of at least 270 will be declared president.

The electoral college meets every four years after election day to carry out that task. In 2020, the meeting is on December 14.

The electoral college was introduced by the founders of the US to avoid states with a larger population being unfairly represented.

Each of the 50 US states and Washington DC is given a set number of electors (at least three each), roughly proportionate* to its size and number of congressional districts.

Of the 538 electors, California has the most with 55 electoral votes (representing its 53 congressmen and two senators), Texas (38) and New York (29) and Florida (29) are the next largest.

All states except Maine and Nebraska use a winner-takes-all system of voting, so whoever wins the most votes takes the entire haul* of electoral college votes for that state.

The electoral college result usually reflects the popular vote, which is each vote made by each individual voter in the general population.

But this is not always the case. In 2016 Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the election because she did not secure a majority of the electoral college.

The main swing states are North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Texas and Pennsylvania. Arizona and Texas are traditionally strongly Republican but there has been increasing support for the Democrats in the lead up to the election.

media_cameraThis combination of pictures created on October 31, 2020 shows US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (left panels) and US President Donald Trump (right panels) during competing campaign events October 29, 2020, in Florida. Picture: AFP

Americans will also be voting for members of the House of Representatives (or just House) and the Senate in Congress, which is like the House of Representatives and Senate in the Australian parliamentary system.

Whether Republicans or Democrats control the House and Senate is important for getting things achieved after the election, such as passing new laws.

It is possible that the Democrats will control both the House and the Senate regardless of who is president.

Because of a range of time zones across the US, voting closes progressively* across the day. Voting closes in Indiana (East) and Kentucky (East) at 9am on Wednesday November 4 (AEDT).

By 11am the key swing states of Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania will have closed. Most polls will have closed by 12pm (AEDT) with just a handful remaining open until 4pm (AEDT). Alaska is the last state to close.

The results for North Carolina, Texas, Maine, New Hampshire and Florida as well as a number of non swing states are expected to be clear within hours.

But the large number of postal votes this year makes the timing of some results unpredictable.

Most states allow election workers to start counting mail-in votes before election day but some swing states, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, can’t start counting until election day, making those states slower to report their results.

The formal process of making election results official varies state by state. Some states have deadlines within a week of the election. But the District of Columbia and 26 states, including six key swing states – Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania – have set their deadlines between November 10 and November 30. Fourteen states, including the key swing state of Wisconsin, as well as New York, Texas and California, have deadlines in early December while four states – Hawaii, Rhode Island, Tennessee and New Hampshire – have no deadline.

Each state must stick to what is known as the safe harbour deadline, the day by which all contests or controversies* about the results must be resolved. The safe harbour deadline this year is set for December 8.

Under the electoral college process, the 538 electors who have been selected by each state must cast their votes on December 14 for president and vice president.

The president will be inaugurated* on Wednesday January 20, 2021.

This is one of the most controversial US elections ever, partly because Donald Trump has indicated he may try to stop vote counts before they are complete, seize votes or refuse to give up the presidency if he loses. It’s not clear how or whether he can actually do any of these things.


  • AEDT: Australian Eastern Daylight Time
  • prone: likely to suffer from or be affected by
  • fraud: wrongful or criminal deception for gain
  • questionable: doubtful as to its truth
  • proportionate: corresponding in size or amount to something else
  • haul: a quantity of something won or taken
  • progressively: in stages over time
  • controversies: disputes or arguments
  • inaugurated: sworn in; officially given the role


Game on in the US presidential election

Impeachment: Trump not guilty on both charges

What happens on election day and why?

Cartoons are not always meant to make you laugh


  1. Who are the two presidential candidates?
  2. What date is the election? How often is it held?
  3. What have voters done in huge numbers this year?
  4. Who or what is the electoral college?
  5. What are three things that could go wrong?


1. Compulsory or Not
In recent years only 140 million of the possible 255 million people have voted in the US elections, which is just over half (55 per cent) of the population.

In Australia it is compulsory to vote in elections otherwise you are fined, which results in most people voting.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of making voting compulsory (have to do it) in the US elections to ensure all people get their say into who is voted president of the most powerful country in the world? Present the advantages and disadvantages in a two-column table.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Civics and citizenship, Critical and creative thinking

2. Extension
Why do you think in this strange pandemic year of 2020, have 97 million people voted early in the 2020 election, more than half of those who voted in the 2016 election? 

Give your reasons below:

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity 
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and creative thinking

Aside from this, there is also this!
Brackets are a great literacy tool for adding aside comments, or comments that could be covered over and the sentence still makes sense. What’s inside the brackets is extra information.

They can be used for a variety of effects: to add more detail, to add humour, to connect with the reader etc.

My little brother, (the funniest kid I know) got himself into big trouble today.

Select 3 sentences from the article to add an aside comment to using brackets. Think about not only what you want to add to the sentence, but also what effect you are trying to create.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What do you think will happen in the US election?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

Extra Reading in explainers