Essential Politics: A 2020 election fact-check

An election worker handles ballots as vote counting in the general election continues in Atlanta.
An election worker handles ballots as vote counting continued at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020.
(Associated Press)

Election officials in Pennsylvania on Saturday counted enough votes to give Joe Biden the state. With its 20 electoral votes, Pennsylvania pushed the Democrat just over the 270 needed to win the presidency. The Associated Press and major networks, including Fox News, declared Biden to be president-elect. That night, the former vice president gave a nationally televised victory speech.

But not so fast, President Trump countered.

With all-caps tweets, Trump declared himself the winner, and his supporters have inundated social media with doctored photos and rumors purporting to reveal voter fraud and irregularities. At his direction, the administration has refused to cooperate with Biden’s transition team.

To say this is unprecedented is an understatement. Every losing president in more than a century has conceded and pledged to peacefully transfer power to his opponent.


Senior Trump administration officials, campaign aides and allies told reporters that the president is desperate to hold onto his loyal fans and sees undermining the results as a way to keep their zealous support. That his claims can confuse even Biden voters further insulates him from having to admit a loss.

To make sense of this week’s news, we tackle three major questions to dispel the clouds Trump has cast over Biden’s victory, and what should have been an uncontroversial transition to a new administration.

How serious are the claims of alleged voting irregularities?

Republicans have made a variety of claims about fraud, all of them false:

  • Absentee ballots have been cast in the names of dead people in Pennsylvania and Michigan. In reality, the voters were very much alive; their dates of birth were simply recorded wrong, as The Times’ James Rainey reported.
  • Pro-Biden ballots were mysteriously found overnight. The truth was that election officials were simply counting absentee ballots, a process that was long expected to take several days.
  • GOP poll observers in Detroit were barred from a counting center. Both parties actually had more than 200 observers, Seema Mehta reported.
  • Out-of-state voters cast ballots in Nevada. The Wall Street Journal reports those voters were members of military families who call the state home but were transferred elsewhere.

Most of the allegations involve mail-in ballots. Due to the dangers of the pandemic, millions of Americans, particularly Democrats, cast their ballots by mail. Meanwhile, Trump raised alarms about the reliability of mail voting and urged his supporters to vote in person.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud in mail-in voting, and states take rigorous precautions to reduce the chances that someone can manipulate the vote.

In Georgia, one of the few states that remain too close to call, Republican election officials have pushed back against the claims of bogus ballot counting from Trump and his allies, Mehta and Jenny Jarvie report.

So far the Trump campaign’s efforts have turned up only a single claim in Nevada that officials are investigating. Biden won the state by more than 36,000 votes, Chris Megerian reports.

Nerissa Buelna, left, and Vivian Morales check ballots before sending them for counting in San Bernardino County
Nerissa Buelna, left, and Vivian Morales check ballots before sending them for counting at the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters office on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020 in San Bernardino, CA.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Do we need the final results to declare a winner?

The counting isn’t yet complete, but it doesn’t have to be to know who won.

Yes, North Carolina is still accepting ballots, and Alaska has only just begun counting absentee ballots. Most states won’t certify their counts until later this month, making the preliminary numbers “unofficial” until then.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined other Republicans on Monday in calling for Americans to ignore the networks’ determination that Biden won and to wait until the results are final. But the remaining ballots cannot change the outcome of the race. It’s just math. There simply aren’t enough ballots left — in close states or in the undecided ones — for Trump to overcome Biden’s lead.

Media calls aren’t perfect. But these days, decision desks rely on vast amounts of data and preliminary counts to independently project winners with a high success rate, Stephen Battaglio writes. Biden’s win was called by every network, including Fox News, within a 16-minute window.

Does it matter if Trump never concedes?

McConnell said Monday Trump “is 100% within his rights” to not concede until the results are final, and to pursue his legal options.

This is technically true.

Statements of concession certainly make things easy, but they’ve always been optional. Since at least 1896, losing candidates have chosen to concede to the winner out of tradition and sportsmanship, as James Rainey wrote last week. Sometimes losing candidates have waited, but still conceded. In the 2000 race, Al Gore conceded and quickly retracted his concession, only to concede again when the Supreme Court determined George W. Bush to be the winner. Trump has never been one to follow traditions.

Regardless of whether Trump concedes, elections are a numbers game. As we’ve covered in previous editions of this newsletter, there’s an order of operations election officials follow. The equation has remained the same since the founding of this country, no concessions required.

That’s not to say there aren’t consequences. Trump’s rhetoric can stoke fear and uncertainty, as Evan Halper, Eli Stokols and David G. Savage wrote before the election. Already, Trump has leveraged his refusal to concede to hold up the transition process, Megerian and Stokols write this week. Still, it doesn’t change the math.

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The latest on the election

— From Halper, Noah Bierman and Tracy Wilkinson: Biden said Tuesday that he would not be stymied by President Trump’s increasingly aggressive attempts to thwart the transition of power, calling Trump’s claims to be the rightful winner “an embarrassment.” Even as Trump’s allies defend him, leaders of foreign nations continued to send congratulations to Biden.

— Days after his win, Biden hasn’t wasted time in tackling the pandemic. He warned that widespread distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine was still months away, and he implored Americans to wear masks, Halper and Noam N. Levey report. Biden also announced the creation of a pandemic task force.

— Democrat Cal Cunningham conceded to incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina on Tuesday, saying “the voters have spoken.”

— Deaf Americans can’t agree on a name for Biden in American Sign Language, writes Sonja Sharp.

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris listen during a meeting with Biden's COVID-19 council
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris listen during a meeting with Biden’s COVID-19 advisory council, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del.
(Associated Press)

The view from Washington

— Trump’s decision to fire Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday raised concerns that he may be planning far-reaching military moves in his final weeks in office, David S. Cloud writes.

— From David G. Savage and Noam N. Levey: The Supreme Court on Tuesday sounded ready to uphold the Affordable Care Act for the third time. Most of the justices gave a skeptical hearing to Texas Republicans and Trump’s lawyers, who insist the entire law should be voided.

The view from California

— California went big for Biden. Now its cities, counties and schools hope he’ll send financial relief their way, write David Zahniser, Benjamin Oreskes and Dakota Smith.

Orange County has announced that it will conduct a voluntary audit of its 2020 presidential election ballots to ensure the integrity of results, Hayley Smith writes. Joe Biden won the county 54% to Trump’s 44%.

— In a major win for the GOP, U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda conceded to his Republican opponent, Michelle Steel, in the race for California’s 48th Congressional District in Orange County, Stephanie Lai reports. It was one of several seats Democrats flipped in 2018, only to lose in 2020.

— More local results are in: Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith appears to have taken the lead over incumbent Rep. Mike Garcia in the race for the 25th Congressional District, which includes Simi Valley, Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Lancaster.

— A divided Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday escalated its running power struggle with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, voting to explore ways he could be removed from office, reports Alene Tchekmedyian.

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