Although November 8, 2016 is "Election Day," Election Day has increasingly become a relative term.  More than half of states conduct some form of early voting. 

Early and Absentee Voting A Growing Trend

Although the United States lays claim to being the world's greatest democracy, we can do better in the area of voter turnout.  According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission's 2016 Election Administration and Voting Survey (PDF, +), "a total of 140,114,502 citizens...voted in the 2016 General Election, representing a national turnout rate of 63 percent of the Citizen Voting Age Population."  The number of votes was a record, but the turnout rate was off from the record set in 2008. 

How Americans vote is evolving.  According to the EAC Survey for the 2016 election 41 percent of all votes were cast before Election Day.  Early voting, which started in Texas in 1991 (>), has now spread to 34 states and DC (EVIC, U.S. Elections Project).  Oregon started using vote-by-mail in 2000 and Colorado and Washington have taken it up (>).  Early voting has significant ramifications on campaigns' get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.  Campaigns encourage supporters to vote early as a way of banking votes, so that on Election Day itself they have fewer people to keep track of.

Keeping Our Democracy Running Smoothly

The 2016 election cast a spotlight on the integrity of our voting processes (+).  In his 2012 book The Voting Wars, Richard Hasen recounts how, "Since the Florida debacle we have witnessed a partisan war over election rules."  Republicans frame the issue as fighting voter fraud, while Democrats say what is actually happening is voter suppression, particularly aimed at members of minority groups.  On top of this ongoing internal debate, 2016 saw unprecedented external attacks on our democracy in the form Russian meddling and cyberattacks on voting systems, aimed at undermining trust and confidence in the system.  Additionally, voting systems are aging and will need to be replaced.

One area of concern was voter registration processes and purges of voter rolls in the lead-up to the election (+).  In an Aug. 2016 article in Rolling Stone headlined "The GOP's Stealth War Against Voters," investigative reporter Greg Palast described how a number of Secretaries of State are using a program called Crosscheck to identify "potential duplicate" voters; he argues "the Crosscheck list disproportionately threatens solid Democratic constituencies (>)."

Since early 2011, much attention and litigation has focused on voter ID laws.  Generally Republicans frame voter ID requirements as a matter of fighting voter fraud, while Democrats view such laws as a means of voter suppression.  The U.S. Supreme Court's June 25, 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder undercut protections of the Voting Rights Act.  For the 2014 mid-term elections the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that nine states had a strict photo ID requirement and an additional three states a strict non-photo ID requirement; in 18 states and DC no document was required; and in between were the remaining states where ID was requested (>).  The Brennan Center for Justice reported that for the 2014 mid-term elections, new voting restrictions were "set to be in place in 22 states since the 2010 elections."  Courts have since ruled against these laws in several states.  On July 20, 2016 a federal appeals court found that Texas' strict voter ID was discriminatory, and on July 29 a federal appeals court struck down major provisions of North Carolina's sweeping voter ID law.  The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights expressed concerns about the possiblity of "widespread voter discrimination" [PDF].  Civil rights groups are working to protect voting rights (+), and the U.S. Department of Justice aims "to ensure all qualified voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots and have their votes counted free of discrimination, intimidation or fraud in the election process (+)."

Many other issues affect elections.  Each year legislatures around the country consider a range of election-related legislation (>).  More than a decade after the Florida debacle and passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) (+), the possibility of incorrect election outcomes remains.  Among the areas of concern are shortages of poll workers (>), worn equipment, issues with provisional and absentee ballots, military voting and overseas voting.  In July 2012 the Verified Voting Foundation, Common Cause and the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic released an in-depth survey of states' voting equipment which noted "it is highly likely that voting systems will fail in multiple places across the country (>)."  This finding was reiterated in the Jan. 2014 report of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration which stated, "By the end of the decade, a large share of the nation’s voting machines, bought 10 years ago with HAVA funds, will reach the end of their natural life and require replacement."  Equipment failure did not seem to be a problem in 2016, however.

Outside meddling by the Russians was a problem, representing an unprecedented direct attack on our democracy.  The hacking of emails of the Democratic National Committee, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Clinton campaign chairman Tony Podesta, seemed intended to favor Trump  (1, 2).  These attacks naturally raised questions about whether Russian interference might extend to attacks on voting systems.  On top of that Trump kept saying the system was rigged.  Officials sought to raise awareness about security measures among the local authorities who administer elections (1, 2), and election administrators in turn sought to reassure voters.  Post-election investigations are fleshing out the details of what happened, showing that much more attention needs to be paid to election security.

On Election Day itself and in the days leading up to it, partisan and independent observers, federal observers, and international observers of varying stripes mobilized to ensure that voters' rights were protected and their intentions heard (1, 2).
See also: 2012 (1, 2, 3, 4[PDF], 5) and 2008 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Election Night: Unofficial Results, Exit Polls...Showtime

Election night coverage and the multi-page spreads in the newspaper the next morning are the culmination of months of preparation and planning.

One key component of election coverage is exit polls, which are based on surveys of voters in randomly selected precincts as they leave polling places.  Exit polls provide a window on the concerns of voters and useful information on variations in voting behavior by gender, race, age, education, income and other factors (>).  From 1988 to 2002 exit polls were overseen by Voter News Service (initially called Voter Research and Surveys), an entity formed by the networks and the Associated Press.  After poor performance in the 2000 and 2002 general elections, the partners disbanded VNS, and a new cooperative, the National Election Pool, comprised of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, FOX News, NBC News and the Associated Press, formed.  Edison Research (formerly Edison Mitofsky) has conducted all exit polling for the National Election Pool since the 2004 general election.  Edison reported in a Nov. 10, 2016 blog posting:

"A staff of over 3,000 exit poll interviewers, precinct vote return reporters, call center workers, and analysts all across the country helped us provide the sole record of who voted, and why. We collected, processed, and analyzed over 100,000 interviews in a 17-hour period to not only create that record, but also to provide the NEP with the guidance to make the right projections for their viewers and readers (+)."

A second important element of election night coverage is the collection, tabulation and distribution unofficial election night vote results for presidential, Senate, House and gubernatorial races.  The Associated Press fulfils this role, providing:

"the results for nearly 7,000 races, 4,700 of which are contested and will be tabulated, tallying the vote to elect the president, Congress and governors, plus state and some regional and local races. Its tabulation of results is used by almost every major news organization in the United States, plus numerous international clients (+)."

For news organizations, when everything works, election night is as good as it gets, a chance to show what they can do.  Anchors man elaborate sets, correspondents around the country file reports, and, as the evening progresses, states are called one way or another and the map begins to fill in with red and blue. 
[News Organizations Cover Election Day 2016]

Defeat...And Victory

After last-ditch campaign swings, the candidates head to their home states.  Typically on the morning of Election Day they vote, and photos and video of those scenes go out to the world.  Hillary and Bill Clinton voted at Douglas G. Grafflin Elementary School in Chappaqua.  Donald Trump, accompanied by his wife Melania and daughter Ivanka, voted at Public School 59 in Manhattan.

In 2016 the expectation among most pundits was that Clinton would win, although talk of a blowout win had faded following FBI Director Comey's letter.  There remained the possibility of considerable "silent support" for Trump that the polls were not catching, but very few pundits believed Trump could win.  Indeed Trump's statements in the closing weeks of the campaign that the election was "rigged" raised concerns about what he and his supporters might do.  There was also the possibility or a disputed election, which would have extended an already too-long election even further (+). 

The Clinton campaign played up early voting results and predicted record turnout would benefit their candidate (+).  The Latino vote in particular was seen as a key to her success.

But on Election Night it was Trump, who had confounded prognosticators throughout the primaries, who achieved a stunning upset.  Both campaigns' supporters  were gathered in New York City, Clinton at the Javits Center and Trump at the Hilton.  During the long night, as state after state was called by news organizations, Clinton's path to 270 electoral votes narrowed, until finally calls in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin gave the race to Trump.  Around 2 a.m. Clinton campaign chairman Tony Podesta came out on the stage at the Javits Center and told deflated Clinton supporters that the campaign would wait until every vote was counted.  Around 2:30 a.m. Clinton called Trump to concede.  Gov. Mike Pence and family came on stage at the Hilton around 2:45 a.m. and introduced Trump, who delivered his victory speech (+).  Late in the morning Clinton delivered her concession speech to a smaller group of staff and supporters in the ballroom of the New Yorker Hotel (+).

The Morning After...What Does It Mean?

The days after the election are peak season for pundits as they assess, analyze, discuss and debate the meaning of the results.  Various interest groups offer their own post-election assessments, often using the opportunity to point to the impact their constituency had on the outcome and to stress their key issues. 
[Reactions 2016


Although Trump secured the enough electoral votes to be declared the winner, several states remained too close too call on Election Night.  On Nov. 14 New Hampshire was called for Clinton and on Nov. 24 Michigan was finally called for Trump.  Trump carried 30 states totaling 306 electoral votes to 20 states and DC totaling 232 electoral votes for Clinton.  Although Trump won the battle for electoral votes, Clinton finished ahead in the popular vote.  This was a sensitive point for Trump, who tweeted on Nov. 15, "If the election were based on total popular vote I would have campaigned in N.Y. Florida and California and won even bigger and more easily."  On Nov. 27 he went even further, tweeting, "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."2  And on Dec. 21 he tweeted, "Campaigning to win the Electoral College is much more difficult & sophisticated than the popular vote. Hillary focused on the wrong states!"  When all the votes were tallied, over 137.0 million votes were cast in the presidential election; Trump won just under 63.0 million (46.0%) (+), Clinton 65.8 million (48.0%), Johnson 4.5 million (3.3%), Stein 1.5 million (1.1%) and others 2.2 million (1.6%).
[See also: David Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, Federal Election Commission, Mark Newman-cartograms]

Voter Turnout in Recent Presidential Elections
Year Voting Eligible Population Highest Office Total Turnout Highest Office
Turnout Rate
Total Ballots Counted Turnout Rate
212,720,027 131,304,731 132,588,514 61.7
2004 203,483,455 122,294,978 123,535,883
60.1 60.7
2000 194,331,436 105,375,486 107,390,107
54.2 55.3
1996 186,347,044 96,262,935 -
51.7 -
1992 179,675,523 104,405,155 -
58.1 -
1988 173,579,281 91,594,691 -
52.8 -
1984 167,701,904 92,652,680 -
55.2 -
1980 155,635,102 86,515,221 -
54.2 -

Source: United States Elections Project by Dr. Michael McDonald.  Use of voting eligible population is a refinement on the old measures which used voting age population; the concept removes non-citizens and ineligible felons from the equation.


Each election is unique and produces a set of lessons and areas that need improvement.  A major lesson of 2016 is that one must be careful to avoid getting caught up in the conventional wisdom.  The Clinton campaign was confident of victory heading into Election Day, speaking of a "Clinton Coalition," and the vast majority of pundits and observers foresaw a Clinton victory.  It did not happen.  The Trump campaign showed that it is possible to win despite being significantly outspent on the airwaves and out-organized on the ground.  [Analysis]

Another very clear lesson from 2016 is that much work needs to be done on election security.  The nation's election administrators are on the frontlines, and they must work to keep their practices and technology up-to-date and to implement new ideas to improve the voting process in their jurisdictions.  Local authorities need resources and know how.  In terms of resources, it might be time for a federal investment in election infrastructure, similar to the Help America Vote Act following the 2000 debacle in Florida.  On the knowledge side, the Election Assistance Commission, formed as a result of HAVA, serves as a national clearinghouse for election administrators and is best positioned to help them address voting equipment and election security challenges.  [Election Integrity]

Election Day: Take 2...The Electoral College

As you will recall from high school, the president is not selected by direct popular vote, but by intermediaries known as electors.  The electoral system is outlined in the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1804 (this significantly modified the original provisions contained in Article II).  Each state has a number of electors equal to its number of congressmen and Senators.  The District of Columbia has three electors, bringing the total to 538.  Most states use a winner-take-all rule; all the state's electors go to the winner of the popular vote in the state.  The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, which distribute the electors by congressional district.  Twenty-nine states and DC have statutes requiring electors to vote for the popular vote winner in the state.

However, there is always the possibility of faithless electors.  Given the contentiousness of this election and qualms about the candidates, there were several electors who went rogue when the electors meet on December 19.  Indeed, in the weeks following Nov. 8 there developed organized last-ditch efforts to deny Trump the presidency in the Electoral College by persuading electors not to vote for him (+).  To succeed they would have had to flip 37 electors away from Trump.  There was virtually no chance of that happening, but the maneuvering did serve an educational purpose, putting a spotlight on the Electoral College process.

Electors are generally party activists.  Some months before the election each party puts together a slate of electors, chosen by congressional district with the exception of the two at-large Senate slots.  If the party's presidential candidate wins the popular vote in the state on Election Day, the members of his or her slate are officially appointed as electors; if not they stay home. 

The law governing electors and the counting of the electoral votes is 3 U.S.C.§§1-21.  Electors meet in ceremonies in each of the state capitols and in the District of Columbia on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December (December 19, 2016).  The electors sign the certificates of vote--actually they sign six copies of the document so there are back-ups.  There are separate votes for president and for vice president.  Each state sends one copy of the certificate of vote to the Office of the President of the United States Senate.  

On January 6, 2017 in a special joint session of Congress these envelopes were opened and tallied and the election certified.  Several members of the House sought to raise objections during the tally, but Vice President Biden, presiding, ruled in each instance that, "The objection cannot be received without a signature from a Senator." > Additionally, three people in the gallery who attempted to voice objections were ejected. 

This is not the first time in recent elections that there have been such efforts.  In 2001 members of the Congressional Black Caucus tried to get Congress to reject Florida's electors, but they could not find a Senator to support their effort.  In 2005 certification of the state results proceeded alphabetically until the Ohio votes were announced.  At that point Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (D-OH), supported by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), announced a challenge.  Debate followed, but the election of President Bush and Vice President Cheney was finally and officially certified.  

The final tally was Trump 304, Clinton 227, and seven for others comprising Colin Powell 3 (WA), John Kasich 1 (TX), Ron Paul 1 (TX), Bernie Sanders 1 (HI) and Faith Spotted Eagle 1 (HI).  The Vice Presidential Vote went Pence 205, Kaine 227, and six for others comprising Elizabeth Warren 2 (HI, WA), Maria Cantwell 1 (WA), Susan Collins 1 (WA), Carly Fiorina 1 (TX) and Winona LaDuke 1 (WA).

Despite Critics, Electoral College Likely to Endure

Over the years there have been many, many efforts to abolish the Electoral College and establish direct popular vote.  In mid-Nov. 2016, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) introduced the latest such bill in Congress (+).  None of this legislation has made headway.  More interesting activity is occuring in the states.

A number of states have seen attempts to move away from winner-take-all distribution of electors.  In 2004 Colorado voters rejected an initiative which would have distributed electors proportionally according to popular vote in the state.  More recently Republicans sought to alter allocation of electors in several big states that typically have supported the Democratic candidate for president.  An effort in California in 2007 to put an initiative on the June 2008 ballot to award electors by congressional district failed to qualify.  In Sept. 2011 Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R) introduced SB 1282, a proposal to allocate electors by congressional district (+).  A similar bill was introduced in Wisconsin.  Following the 2012 election, Virginia State Sen. Charles “Bill” Carrico Sr. (R) introduced a bill which would have awarded electors to the winner in each of the commonwealth's congressional districts and awarded the remaining two to the winner of the most congressional districts; this died in committee. In Pennsylvania, Pileggi introduced a new bill on Feb. 21, 2013, this time proposing to allocate electors proportionately according to the popular vote (SB 538) (+).  In Michigan, on Nov. 13, 2014 state Rep. Pete Lund (R) introduced a bill to give the popular vote winner the majority of electors, with the rest of the electors distributed according to the proportion of the vote. (HB 5974) (+).  There continues to be activity in several other states (see NCSL database).

In 2006 a group called National Popular Vote launched an effort to bring about change through the state legislatures.  The premise is a compact or "Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote" which would take effect once states totalling 270 electoral votes have enacted it.  In April 2014 New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed NPV legislation making the state the eleventh jurisdiction to join (10 states and DC); the 11 jurisdictions account for 165 electoral votes or 61% of the way to 270.  At the current pace of the National Popular Vote movement it is clear that the Electoral College system will still be in place for the 2016 election, but it would not be surprising to see it change by 2020.

1. For a while in October it looked like there might be a blowout for Clinton.  There have been three one-sided elections in the last 50 years.  In 1972 President Richard Nixon defeated Sen. George McGovern by 23.2 percentage points, 60.7% to 37.5% (46.7 million votes to 28.9 million) carrying 49 of 50 states and tallying 520 electoral votes to 17 for McGovern.  In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson defeated Sen. Barry Goldwater by 22.6 percentage points, 61.1% to 38.5% (43.1 million votes to 27.2 million), carrying 44 states and DC and winning 486 electoral votes to 52 for Goldwater.  In 1984 President Ronald Reagan trounced former Vice President Walter Mondale by 18.8 percentage points, 58.8% to 40.6% (54.5 million votes to 37.6 million) carrying 49 of 50 states and winning 525 electoral votes to 13 for Mondale. 

Recent Lopsided Presidential Elections
Year Winner
Loser States Won
Elect'l Votes
Nixon (R)  47,168,710  (60.7%) McGovern (D)  29,173,222  (37.5%) 49 
520 to 17
Johnson (D)  43,127,041  (61.1%)
Goldwater (R)  27,175,754 (38.5%)
486 to 52
1984 Reagan (R) 54,455,472  (58.8%)
Mondale (D)  37,577,352 (40.6%)
525 to 13
                                In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept Alf Landon (R) at just 36.5% of the vote against , and in 1920 Sen. Warren Harding
                                    limited Gov. James M. Cox (D) to 34.2%.