Like much of the country, the NYU community is anxiously awaiting the outcome of the November 3 election, and pondering the scenarios that could play out depending upon voting results—esepcially in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina. To shed some light on what we might all expect in the coming weeks, NYU News spoke with Richard Pildes—NYU Law professor and CNN election analyst—to provide some constitutional and historical context for this divisive election.

the whitte house

What should we reasonably expect in terms of the timeframe for counting ballots in swing states? 

The answer will vary by state.  A main reason is that states vary in whether they permit their election officials to begin processing absentee ballots in advance of Election Day or not until then. Florida, North Carolina and Arizona are likely to be early. Pennsylvania is likely to take the longest. 

Who assumes power if it’s unclear who won the presidency by the inauguration date of January 20?

The Constitution ends the terms of the current president and vice president on January 20. If we have not resolved the choice of the new president and vice president by then, a federal law provides that the speaker of the House—this is of the newly elected House—will become “acting president” if they resign their position as speaker, until a new president has validly been chosen.

What can history tell us about the resilience of the political system during contentious elections?

In the United States, our system has been highly resilient historically. Our two most disputed elections since the Civil War have been in 1876 and 2000. In 2000, the courts played a central role and once the final court decision came down, from the Supreme Court, the losing candidate accepted the result. There were certainly criticisms, many of which currently linger, about the Court’s role.  But we did not fall into any political instability, let alone violence. 

In 1876, the dispute was far more intense.  The winner was not determined until two days before Inauguration Day, which back then was in March—meaning that the result was in doubt for nearly four months. There was a risk of dueling inaugurations, but at the end of the day, that did not happen and the result was accepted.