Three-Minute Legal Tips: Disputed Presidential Elections

The 2020 U.S. presidential election is shaping up to be one of the most contentious in the nation's history, and there's a strong possibility Americans won't know the results on election night.

In the event of a disputed election, a sitting president has a number of political options at his disposable to attempt to influence the result — but ultimately very few legal tools with which to do so.

So, who actually has the power to determine the next commander in chief, and when will the country know who will be sitting in the Oval Office on Jan. 20?

In just three minutes, Lisa Manheim, a Charles I. Stone Professor of Law, discusses how disputed elections are decided and what, if anything, either candidate can do about it.

Read the Transcript

Lisa Manheim: Hi, I'm Lisa Manheim and I'm the Charles Stone Associate Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law.

Three-Minute Legal Tips: What is a disputed election?

LM: It's normal for elections to be contested before election day, of course. That being said, some elections are still in a sense contested after election day and that might be because there's not a clear winner or maybe because somebody's not conceding and in that case you have what you might think of as a disputed election. One of the reasons why people are talking about disputed elections right now in the lead up to the 2020 presidential elections is because the president of the United States has suggested that maybe he will not accept the results of the presidential election if those results do not reveal what he thinks they should reveal, which is that he won.

TMLT: How are election disputes generally resolved?

LM: In the United States, we have states run elections and so what that means is that each state government decides how it's going to resolve a disputed election and so that's going to depend a bit, but generally you have a series of events including, for example, a recount and perhaps an election contest which is going to feel a lot like a trial in a court. That eventually leads to a winner or perhaps a new election being called as a way of resolving these election disputes.

TMLT: What legal powers does a sitting president have in a disputed election?

LM: A sitting president has an enormous amount of power generally that touches into any number of different areas, but actually when it comes to legal authority that a sitting president has over resolving election disputes, including his own election disputes,a sitting president has essentially no powers to control the outcome of those election disputes

TMLT: Are there other tools a president can use to influence the outcome of an election?

LM: Now when we say that a president doesn't have any legal tools to influence a disputed election, that may feel a little bit misleading because the president also has any number of non-legal tools in his toolbox. For example, a president has political tools. So, a president could use his platform to try to convince various actors in the process to decide things his way and when it comes to the president's political clout that's quite broad. A president has a uniquely powerful role in government which then extends not only to legal tools but also to the ability to influence politics.

TMLT: Are there other measures a president can take to ensure an election win?

LM: So, the president has legal powers and the president has political powers. In a sense, there's also a third category, which is where a president tries to use legal powers in a way that aren't themselves lawful. So, for example, maybe a president looks at the amount of funding that's distributed across the country and he says, you know, what if a state out there doesn't decide a disputed election in a way that I agree with? Well then, I'm going to order the relevant agency to withhold funds from that state. An openly unlawful move like that is unlikely to sway a disputed election.

TMLT: What is the deadline for determining a disputed presidential election?

LM: Well in one respect it's pretty complicated to talk about when exactly disputes related to the presidential elections have to end and that's because of the multi-step process we have for electing a president. But, in another sense the answer is pretty easy and that's on January 20th the term of the sitting president ends and a new president is inaugurated.