Decision 2020: The meaning behind ‘President-elect’

Updated: Nov. 10, 2020 at 6:32 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Projections may show he has enough electoral votes, but many people seem to have trouble calling Joe Biden “President-elect.”

For decades news outlets have used the term to describe presidential winners, but there is nothing official about the term. Both Democrats and Republicans have usually described the person projected to win the most electoral votes this way, even shortly after Election Day.

However, for the 2020 election, it seems the phrase is bothering a lot more people.

“The difference is they liked the result in 2016 and they don’t like the result in 2020,” said the Executive Director of UVA Center for Politics, Larry Sabato.

Sabato said this election has been unlike any other. However, when it comes to the phrase “president-elect,” it is not something new.

According to Britannica, the phrase appears in the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933. It is used there to allow the vice president-elect to become president if a President-elect died before taking the oath of office.

“In the old days, you didn’t have a president-elect until the Electoral College met; that’s when the title becomes official,” Sabato said.

“For me, I don’t lose any sleep over it, but to be technically precise, nobody has the title of ‘president-elect’,” said Rich Anderson, Chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.

Even in 2016, Anderson recalls the phrase used with President Trump.

“After he was declared the winner on election night, I still personally always referred to him as Mr. Trump until he approached that time when he took the oath of office,” he said.

The RPV Chairman also cited concerns with the phrase during the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

“All the contention surrounding that, there was a period of time where Gore was being referred to as the ‘President-elect’ and that pretty quickly was shifted,” Anderson said.

However, Sabato said while it is an unofficial term, it does help the candidate when preparing for the future.

“There is nothing in law that would confer special powers,” he said. “What it does is give the incoming administration the 70 or so days that you have between the election and the inauguration; that’s not very long, they have to put together a government. They have to prepare their plans.”

According to Sabato, despite the vast differences between President Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the work for the incoming president started fairly quickly in 2016.

“He had Donald Trump into the Oval Office less than 48 hours after he was elected,” Sabato said. “That’s the way it’s done.”

However, the 2020 election has been more contentious than previous elections.

While Anderson said he has not received any complaints from fellow Republicans about calling Joe Biden “President-elect,” NBC12 has.

“What they really want is for Donald Trump to get a second term,” Sabato said. “They want to de-legitimize Joe Biden.”

“Until an Electoral College winner has been determined there are a lot of moving pieces and a lot of unknowns, which is what we’re seeing play out now,” Anderson said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Electors will meet on Dec. 14 in each state to cast their ballots for President and Vice President.

For more on that timeline, click here.

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