How long could it take before we know who won the U.S. presidential election?

OTTAWA — Despite U.S. President Donald Trump calling for votes already cast to stop being counted, many Americans’ ballots are still being tabulated to determine whether he is re-elected or Democratic challenger Joe Biden will clinch a tight victory.

It’s not the first time an American election has remained too close to call well into the day after election day, and it’s looking highly unlikely that even by day’s end the winner will be declared.

Why is that? And how long could it be still before the next United States president is known? breaks down the path ahead to the needed 270 electoral college votes and what further complicating role the American court system could play. 

Broadly speaking, unlike in Canada where one central elections agency runs all elections in the 338 federal ridings, in the United States each state is a master of its own electoral destiny. In response to COVID-19, state legislators took differing approaches to how ballots would be cast and counted in a pandemic. 

As a result, and as was flagged by electoral officials in the days and weeks leading up to Nov. 3, several key states have needed more time to scrutinize the outstanding ballots. 

“Things have changed with mail-in voting… Counting votes cast by mail—if you’re going to do it right and you’re going to do it accurately because there’s no other choice— takes a little bit of time. So, I know that’s very frustrating. It’s frustrating for you, it’s frustrating for us,” said Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt on Wednesday.

Chair of Philadelphia City Commissioners Lisa Marie Deeley referred to the process as “an assembly line,” where ballots need to be sorted, opened, unfolded, and then scanned.


As of 6:30 p.m. EST on Wednesday, four states are still sorting through uncounted mail ballots, with the votes counted so far showing a too-close-to-call result. Between them are 73 electoral votes, of which Trump needs 56 to secure a victory, while Biden needs to lock in 22.

GEORGIA: Results were initially expected on Wednesday but it’s looking like it could take more time. There are 16 electoral college votes up for grabs in this state.

NEVADA: Results are expected by Thursday. There are six electoral college votes up for grabs in this state.

PENNSYLVANIA: Results are expected by Friday. There are 20 electoral college votes up for grabs in this state.

NORTH CAROLINA: Results could take until Nov. 12 or beyond. There are 15 electoral college votes up for grabs in this state.


With so much at stake and already such a fractiously contested election, both Republican and Democratic legal teams are gearing up for a series of court battles that could drag out the final declaration of results well past when all votes are counted and reported.

Trump has already threatened to take the election to the U.S. Supreme Court, hinting he’s hopeful for a favourable outcome on account for the recently-secured Republican majority among its benches.

The U.S. Supreme Court ended up deciding the result of the presidential election, which led to Republican George W. Bush winning the presidency. In that instance the winner wasn’t clear for more than a month.

However, it’s not possible for Trump to take the matter directly to the top court in that country claiming overall election fraud.

Republicans would have to allege vote-counting problems in individual states and take their legal fight from lower courts up, as they are beginning to do, and is already the case with a pending Republican appeal at the Supreme Court over whether votes cast by election day in Pennsylvania can be counted if they arrive between today and Friday.

Under U.S. federal law, states have until Dec. 8 to finalize their ballot count. Moreover, the electoral college does not actually “meet” until the Monday after the second Wednesday in December to award their votes. This year, that meeting is on Dec. 14.

The inauguration of the next U.S. president is scheduled for Jan. 20, 2021.

With files from Patrick Cain, Nicole Bogart, and The Associated Press

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