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Ask Civics 101: Why Does It Take So Long To Certify the Vote?

Sara Plourde/NHPR

Today we're answering a listener question about certifying the Electoral College vote. Namely: what is with all of the downtime between the date when the electors meet to vote and the day those votes get counted in Congress? Is it a holdover from the days of slow travel and horse drawn carriage? Is it about our molasses bureaucracy? 

Read on or listen to this short episode for the answer.


Do you have a question for the team at Civics 101? Ask us!

Civics 101 has actually danced around this question in a few ways from our episode on the lame duck period to the process of counting your ballot to how the Electoral College votes. But the why of it all is a great question.

We've got the election on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November; then the Electoral College meets, officially, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December (in 2020, that fell on December 14th); then Congress counts those votes on January 6th; and, finally, the inauguration is another two weeks after that.

It is a good long while from A to Z. So where do all these dates come from?

Many of these dates were determined by Congress initially because the Constitution allows states to determine, to quote, the "time, place, and manner of their elections." States held presidential elections on different days.

In 1845, Congress passed the presidential Election Day Act, which sets that Tuesday after the first Monday in November, a date which was later codified in U.S. Code 3.

Then we see the date of the Electoral College vote show up in the Electoral Count Act of 1887. Congress wanted to minimize its role in election disputes, so they came up with several deadlines, giving states plenty of time to work out vote kinks. It also establishes that those electoral votes have to reach Congress by the fourth Wednesday in November.

So why this long delay between the electoral vote day and the vote count in Congress?

The Constitution says that a new session of Congress starts on January 3rd, and it's the newly seated Congress that counts and certifies the final vote. So that's probably part of it. But it is also a partial holdover from the days before paved roads, telephones and the Internet. Tabulating the vote, gathering the electors all in one place, letting the president elect know they were elected, and then giving them time to assemble a cabinet - all of that took a lot of time when you couldn't just send an email. Despite technological advances, we do still need to allow time for a lot of it, especially in an election year like the one we just had.

Finally, for the record: all of this used to take a lot longer. Congress initially set the president's inauguration and the beginning of a new congressional term to March 4th. And in fact, the weather was so bad following the first presidential election that George Washington wasn't sworn in until April.

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Hannah McCarthy first came to NHPR an intern in 2015, returned as a Fellow the following year and then bounced around as a reporter and producer before landing as co-host of Civics 101. She has reported on everything from the opioid epidemic to State House politics to haunted woods of New Hampshire.

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