There is a very bland answer to the question about why we don’t know who won the US election -- the US system is not designed to declare a winner on election day. Although it has become an expectation in recent history, there is no such legal requirement.
But there is a more complicated answer to the situation because the reality is so much more different this time—a record number of Americans, more than 100 million, have cast their ballots by mail before the day of the election because of the pandemic. In 2016, 47 million Americans had cast ballots before election day.
President Donald Trump pumps his fist after speaking in the East Room of the White House, early Wednesday, in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence and first lady Melania Trump watch. (AP/PTI)
Even though President Trump and his aides have repeatedly pressured news organisations to declare a winner on the night of the election day (news orgnanisation typically project a winner since America does not have an election commission), that task is nearly impossible because battleground states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin do not allow officials to process (to physically open envelopes and tally them against voters registration files) and count mail-in ballots until election day.
As of Wednesday morning (Tuesday midnight in the US), for example, more than 2 million mail-in ballots were left to be counted in Pennsylvania. In Michigan, poll workers can begin processing ballots a day in advance, but they can’t be tabulated until the day of the election. Because each of these states are swing states, Republican legislators in each of these states have also not allowed the ballots to be processed weeks in advance because mail-in votes usually give an edge to the Democrats.
Joe Biden speaks to supporters early Wednesday. (Photo: AP/PTI)
Since news organisation have not been able to project a winner mathematically, both presidential candidates tried to assert control over the situation. In a speech in Delaware on early Wednesday morning (US time), Biden said he was “feeling good about where we are.” He sounded optimistic about winning some of the key battleground states, though he said it was not his or Trump’s place to declare who won the election.
Within minutes of the speech, President Trump falsely tweeted that “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!”
We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 4, 2020
Twitter flagged the tweet as misleading since the president tried to claim victory prematurely. But this wasn't new. Trump and his aides have repeatedly tried to sow doubts about mail-in voting for days leading up to the election. In one press briefing in September, Trump even said “we’ll see what happens,” when he was asked whether he would commit to a peaceful transition of power if he lost. He has called mail-in ballots (a lot of states expanded their mail-in/absentee ballot laws because of the pandemic) a "disaster" and has repeatedly cited widespread fraudulence without evidence (evidence points to the contrary).
Even though polls have closed, several states allow the counting of votes that have been postmarked by election day but arrive after that. This is why American political pundits had long warned people about a “red mirage” and a “blue mirage” which are impressions that could falsely give the nation hope that either a Republican or Democrat is leading before all the votes have been counted.