US election 2020: What date is it, how does it work and what are the key swing states?

The 2020 US election is less than a month away, but the coronavirus pandemic has thrown many aspects of the race into uncertainty.

The big question is how the election will be affected by Donald Trump being diagnosed with Covid-19. The president’s health will be carefully monitored in the next few days and should he become seriously ill it could significantly impact the election.

His positive result already triggered a wave of speculation about what could happen to the US government, the US election, the handling of the pandemic and more.

The virus has already dramatically affected the running of the election.

The Republican and Democratic conventions were unlike any other – with both parties avoiding the usual jamborees filled with thousands of supporters, party officials and reporters from across the globe.

It is also unclear what election day itself will look like, given the risk of catching the virus by voting in person.

A record number of people are expected to vote before November 3 by opting for postal votes. Election experts suggest this could mean the result may not be declared on election night, but may take several days – or even weeks – to emerge.  

With the coronavirus pandemic expected to impact public life well into the autumn, the 2020 election is likely to go down in history as one of the most unconventional US presidential races ever held.

Despite the uncertainty, there are some aspects of the election process that are enshrined in the US constitution. Here is everything we know about how the race will play out.

What does Trump getting coronavirus mean for the election?

Mr Trump cancelled plans to attend fundraisers and rallies.

The diagnosis marks a major blow for a president who has been trying desperately to convince the American public that the worst of the pandemic is behind it – even as cases continue to rise just weeks before the November 3 election, in which he is running against Joe Biden.

It stands as the most serious known public health scare encountered by any sitting American president in recent history.

Mr Trump has refused to participate in the second US presidential election debate against Mr Biden after it was announced the event would be held virtually because of his coronavirus diagnosis. 

Nine days after Mr Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis, he stood on a balcony at the White House and delivered an address to a crowd of a few hundred black supporters.

He spoke for 18 minutes, without coughing, and appeared well.

He said: “I’m feeling great. We got to vote these people [Democrats] into oblivion, get rid of them.”

Mr Trump’s doctor announced on October 10 that the President is no longer contagious – nine days after being stopped in his tracks by Covid-19.

“I am happy to report that in addition to the President meeting CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) criteria for the safe discontinuation of isolation, this morning’s Covid PCR sample demonstrates, by currently recognised standards, he is no longer considered a transmission risk to others,” the President’s physician Sean Conley said.

Read more: Who won the vice-presidential debate?

What date is the 2020 US election and can Trump postpone it?

The election will be held on Tuesday, November 3. 

Donald Trump has already floated delaying it, in a tweet which suggested the rule changes making it easier for voters to us​e postal ballots in many states could lead to a “rigged election”. 

Mr Trump has argued that, despite using it himself in the past, mail-in voting is more open to fraud. Most election experts have questioned whether it is possible for postal voting to lead to widespread fraud, as Mr Trump claims, but have pointed out that an anticipated rise in postal voting could cause problems. 

The election date is not written into the US Constitution, so a delay is technically possible, but the Constitution does outline a date for the newly elected president’s inauguration in January.   

However, the power to change the election date lies with the US Congress, and the Democrats hold the majority in one chamber, the House of Representatives, making it extremely unlikely a delay would be approved.

Read more: US election debates schedule – key dates

How else has coronavirus affected the election campaign cycle?

The Democratic and Republican political conventions, a staple of presidential election years, now have new degrees of uncertainty attached to them.

Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, decided against travelling to Wisconsin to accept the Democratic presidential nomination because of coronavirus concerns. Instead, Mr Biden accepted the nomination and delivered a national address from his home state of Delaware. Ms Harris also formally accepted the vice-presidential nomination from a hotel ballroom in Wilmington, Delaware.

Mr Trump has refused to participate in the second US presidential election debate after it was announced the event would be held virtually due to his diagnosis. “I’m not going to do a virtual debate,” Mr Trump told Fox News, calling the decision “ridiculous” moments after the Commission on Presidential Debates announced the changes.

Read more: Who won the vice-presidential debate?

The Republican convention was also a pared-down affair. Much of the convention, including Mr Trump’s speech, was virtual and included live speeches from different locations. The president delivered his own Republican nomination acceptance speech from the White House.

You can find more information on how the coronavirus is affecting the election year here.

Read more: Trump and Pence vs Biden and Harris: Republican and Democratic policies compared

How does voting work?

The presidential election vote is a simple choice between candidates from the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Occasionally a third party candidate will enter the race, like Kanye West this year, but it is quite rare for them to gain traction or make a significant impact.

Any prospective presidential candidate must meet three criteria: they must be a US citizen from birth; at least 35 years old; and have lived in the US for at least 14 years.

The two main political parties hold primaries and caucuses across the country during an election year to select who they want to represent them on the ballot. You can read more about that process here.

The Democratic and Republican candidates are then formally selected and announced during their parties’ summer conventions. 

The US election system itself is far from straightforward. That is because when America’s founding fathers created the system in 1787, there was no way a presidential candidate could mount a national campaign – and there was little in the way of national identity.

The founding fathers chose not to elect US presidents by direct popular vote over fears that larger and more populous states could have an outsized role in deciding the winner.

The system of electors, based loosely on the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals selecting the Pope, was chosen with the theory that the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each state would select a president on merit, disregarding state loyalties.

So when Americans cast their vote on November 3, they technically vote for “electors”, not the candidates themselves. The electors are state officials or senior party figures, but they are not usually named on the ballot. 

Each elector casts one vote following the general election for one of the two candidates. The newly elected President and Vice-President will then be inaugurated on January 20, 2021.

Read more: Who won the first presidential debate?

How does the electoral college work?

All 50 US states and Washington DC have a set number of “electors” in the electoral college – roughly proportionate to the size of each state. 

Each state gets at least three electoral votes because the amount is equal to its total number of Senators and Representatives in the US Congress. Washington DC also gets three electoral college votes, meaning a total of 538 electors form the Electoral College.

California, the largest state, has 55 electoral votes, Texas, the next largest, gets 38. New York and Florida have 29 each.

All but two states – Maine and Nebraska – use a winner-takes-all system, so if you win the most votes in a state, you take its entire haul of electoral college votes. 

To become president either candidate needs to win a majority of the 538 electors – i.e. 270 electors.

While the Constitution does not dictate that electors follow the popular vote, many US states have laws requiring them to do so. These laws have been challenged by electors voting for someone else on occasion, but in July, the US Supreme Court ruled that electors must follow the popular vote in states that have passed such a law.

The electoral college system does usually reflect the popular vote – presidents have won the electoral vote while losing the popular vote just five times in US history. The most recent instance was in 2016, when Donald Trump won the electoral college but Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, won the popular vote.

What are swing states?

The key for either party to win the presidential election is to target specific battleground states. There are several swing states, that over recent elections have gone both ways. They hold the key to winning the election.

This year North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona could all be decisive in the election’s outcome. They are all states which Mr Trump won narrowly against Mrs Clinton in 2016, helping him secure his electoral college victory. Retaining them is crucial to his re-election hopes.

If the polls are to be trusted, Mr Biden holds a competitive edge over Mr Trump in all of them. Pollsters attributed Mr Biden’s lead to support among white university-educated voters, while Mr Trump’s support among white working-class voters is waning. 

Read more: US Election 2020 polls tracker

What happened in the town halls?

After the second presidential debate was cancelled, the two candidates appeared in separate live town halls that were broadcast at the same time.

Mr Trump dominated the headlines after he refused to denounce the QAnon conspiracy theory, which falsely claims the US government is controlled by a “deep state” cabal of anti-Trump Satanist paedophiles. He said: “So, I know nothing about QAnon. I know very little. What I do hear about it, they are very strongly against paedophilia. I do agree with that.”

The president was questioned over his decision to retweet a false conspiracy theory, from a QAnon-linked Twitter account, suggesting that Navy Seals killed a body double of Osama bin Laden, and that the Obama administration covered it up. Mr Trump said he was just “putting it out there” and “people can decide for themselves”.

Mr Trump also denied that he was told in the Oval Office, by his national security adviser in January, that the coronavirus would be the biggest national security threat of his presidency.

In Philadelphia, Mr Biden said: “We’re in a situation where we have 210,000 plus people dead and what’s he doing? Nothing. He’s still not wearing masks.”

Mr Biden put on his mask when leaving the stage to be closer to questioners.