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FACT CHECK: Trump's Claim That Biden's Wins Aren't Certified Won't Change The Outcome

Democratic and Republican canvas observers inspect Lehigh County provisional ballots as vote counting in the general election continued on Friday.
Mary Altaffer
Democratic and Republican canvas observers inspect Lehigh County provisional ballots as vote counting in the general election continued on Friday.

Hours after Joe Biden hit the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidency, and The Associated Press and others called the race for him, President Trump has not only refused to concede, but insisted Biden was "rushing to falsely pose as the winner."

In a statement released Saturday, Trump pledged to press on with election litigation and wrote that Biden "has not been certified the winner of any states."

It's true that states have not yet certified Biden as the winner, but that statement misses the larger picture — that certifying results will not change the overall outcome of the election.

Elections don't get certified until the counting is complete. It's basically a final stamp on the numbers. But at this point, updated tallies shouldn't change which candidate leads or wins a given state, meaning it's possible to both know who won and not have the results certified yet.

So what does it mean to certify the winner?

Elections are certified once every vote is counted and all outstanding legal issues are sorted. There is a deadline for this, and it varies by state. Most states must be done by the end of November.

When they're done counting, cities and counties report their final results up to the state. The governor or a statewide entity then certifies their electoral votes and the slate of electors who will cast them accordingly, as NPR's Ron Elving has explained. The electors meet this year on Dec. 14, to formally cast the electoral votes.

The AP, and other networks, call a winner only when the trailing candidate has no possible path to victory. In other words, decisions desks hold off on a call until they can determine that the candidate behind has no route to catch up, even with the outstanding ballots that are left to count.

Trump cited potential recounts and ongoing litigation as reason to keep hope alive for his candidacy. It's true that some states have mandatory recount procedures when the vote is within a certain margin. That will almost certainly happen in Georgia, the secretary of state announced on Friday.

But Biden hit the 270 he needs without Georgia and without Arizona. The AP and decision desks, in calling the election, determined that the margin in Pennsylvania, for example, is big enough that it's past the margin that would warrant a recount and the outstanding ballots won't be enough for the margin to slip back into that territory.

The Trump campaign says it intends to file a recount request in Wisconsin. Typically, recounts don't end up swaying the final tally much one way or the other. In 2016, a recount in Wisconsin yielded Trump 131 votes. Biden leads Trump by more than 20,000 votes in Wisconsin.

As for lawsuits, there is ongoing litigation in Pennsylvania that could put in jeopardy some ballots that were received by Friday, but were postmarked by Election Day. The margin in Pennsylvania looks to be big enough that even if those ballots — estimated to be a few thousand at most — aren't counted, Biden would still carry the commonwealth.

Most of the other lawsuits the Trump campaign has lodged have been filed with little to no evidence backing up their claims. Judges have tossed out suits in Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania already.

All that being said, counting continues in many states, in large part due to the deluge of mail ballots cast this year.

But the timeline of certification will all move along, whether Trump concedes or not.

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Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.