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What is on the 2020 U.S. election ballot?

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This has been an unusual election in the United States, and not just because it is being held in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This election has heightened destructive and disgusting trends in the U.S., but also the best of progressive organizing. Given these trends, I will not hazard a guess about who will prevail. Instead, this toolkit clarifies what is at stake in this election and provides information that might not be common knowledge.

What is on the ballot? 

Many voters in the United States, and spectators around the world, only hear about the presidential or congressional races on the ballot. However, when you see the ballot, there is so much more being decided. 

Local elections sometimes impact our daily lives more than national governments. However, many people know little about who is running. The information compiled below is all from Ballotpedia.org. Please visit the site for more expertly curated and presented information. 

  • President: Americans will cast votes for the president and vice-president of the United States on November 3, 2020. The following are all the candidates running. However, only the candidates from the Democratic, Republican, Green and Libertarian parties appear on enough state ballots to win a majority -- at least 270 electoral votes -- in the Electoral College. Voters in all 50 states technically are not voting for a president, but for a slate of electors who are pledged to support one of the presidential candidates in a later vote. These candidates are: 
    • Republican: Donald Trump and Mike Pence
    • American Solidarity party: Brian Carroll and Amar Patel
    • Democratic: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris
    • Green: Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker
    • Libertarian: Jo Jorgensen and Jeremy Cohen
    • Party for Socialism and Liberation: Gloria La Riva and Sunil Freeman


  • Congress: A total of 470 seats in the U.S. Congress (35 of the 100 Senate seats and all 435 House seats) are up for election on November 3, (this includes two special elections in Georgia and Arizona for the Senate.) The senators who win in the special elections will take their seats on November 3. The rest of the members of Congress will be seated on January 3 when the new Congress is sworn in.
  • State officials: State executive offices up for election in 2020 include 11 state and two territorial gubernatorial seats, 10 lieutenant gubernatorial seats, 10 attorney general seats, and seven secretary of state seats.
  • Ballot measures: Voters in 32 states will decide 120 statewide ballot measures on November 3. The notable policies highlighted on Ballotpedia's excellent page on these measures are: elections policy, taxes, marijuana legalisation, and statewide measures on gig-economy policies. At least 23 states have local ballot measures on their ballot. Ballotpedia's website highlights police reforms and changes to protesting proposed in the wake of George Floyd's killing and local ballot measures in 100 large municipalities.
  • State and local courts: A total of 278 state appellate court seats are up for election in 2020. Thirty-five states are holding state supreme court elections in 2020. In total, 78 of the nation's 344 state supreme court seats are up for election. Thirty states are holding intermediate appellate court elections in 2020. There are 200 seats on intermediate appellate courts up for election. Forty-one of the 100 largest cities in the United States will also have local judges up for election on the November 3 ballot.
  • Municipal elections: Ballotpedia only focuses on the 100 largest municipalities in the United States. Elections are being held in 56 of America's 100 largest cities by population in 2020. That includes elections for mayor in 29 of the 100 largest cities. Elections are also being held for local positions in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico. That includes elections for mayor in 19 cities in Guam and 78 cities in Puerto Rico.

What is the timeline for getting a new Congress and the President-elect into office?

So what happens after the vote on November 3? The following is copied from an Associated Press article:

  • Dec. 14: This is the date when electors are required to meet in their states and cast their ballots for president.
  • Jan. 3: The new Congress is sworn in.
  • Jan. 6: Congress counts the electoral votes. Typically, this process formally certifies a winner. But if no candidate wins a majority of electors, the House votes to determine who becomes president as laid out in the United States Constitution.  There can also be a lot of procedural challenges submitted to disqualify electors.
  • Jan. 20: By noon on this day, the constitution says a new presidential term begins. If Congress has not yet certified a winner of the presidential election, federal law designates an acting president based on which elected officials are in office. If there is no president or vice president whose election has been certified by Congress, for example, the Speaker of the House becomes president. If there isn’t a speaker in office, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate becomes president.

What is the electoral college?

The electoral college is composed of 538 members, allocated to the state by population. Its roots lie in the United States Constitution, and in efforts to make sure that places with small populations still had some power, and that the role of electors is governed by federal and state law.

In all but two states, there is a "winner-takes-all" system. Maine and Nebraska use something called the "congressional district method," whereby these two states allocate two electoral votes to the state popular vote winner, and then one electoral vote to the popular vote winner in each congressional district.

In almost all states, if a presidential candidate wins the popular vote in the state when it is called, they win all the electoral votes in the state. However, only 33 states plus the District of Columbia require that all the electors vote for the candidate who was selected by their voters, sometimes giving rise to a phenomenon called "faithless electors." The impact of faithless electors on American elections to date has been negligible.

However, Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institute notes there are concerns that "in this chaotic election year, their potential to disrupt the presidential election may loom larger."

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