Election officials begin counting absentee ballots at City Hall on...

Election officials begin counting absentee ballots at City Hall on Tuesday in Beloit, Wis. Wisconsin requires election officials to wait to begin counting these votes until after polls open on Election Day.  Credit: Getty Images / Scott Olson

WASHINGTON — If the deadline for voting passes without an officially declared winner, the battle for the White House will be fought in state elections offices, in the courts and even possibly in Congress over the next few days and weeks.

With a record-breaking turnout of voters, most states will be counting ballots for at least a day or two — if not longer — after Election Day. And the key swing states of Pennsylvania and Michigan are expected to be counting ballots at least until the end of the week.

It will take longer if states face legal challenges, as President Donald Trump on Sunday promised to launch: "As soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers."

Democrat Joe Biden’s legal team also stands ready. So do lawyers for nonpartisan voting rights and for advocacy groups on the left and right. But what has added the most tension to this election has been Trump’s demand that the vote count on Nov. 3 decide the election and his refusal to say he would leave office if he loses — setting off alarms that he would break the tradition of a peaceful transfer of power.

"Our president talks about the elections in terms of, ‘Well, if I if I lose, that means the Democrats fraudulently won the election.’ That's incitement, and that's not what a responsible leader should be doing," said Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator and defense secretary.

What will unfold over the next few days as the nation waits to learn who won will take place both within the Electoral College timetable as well as the actions of outside groups and advocates facing one of the country’s most consequential and tense elections.

Here is a rundown of the Electoral College’s schedule and things to watch for.

The Electoral College

Dec. 8: Most states certify their electors who will cast votes in the Electoral College by this date, which is called the "safe harbor" deadline. It’s called that because after that date, Congress cannot challenge any electors named under state law.

Dec. 14: The governor of each state must certify the state’s presidential election vote and the state’s electors by this date. Those electors also must meet by then and cast their ballots for president. If a state’s electors miss this deadline, their votes don’t count.

Dec. 23: The states must transmit their votes to Congress by this deadline.

Jan. 3: Newly elected and reelected members of the House and Senate are sworn in as Congress begins its new two-year session.

Jan. 6: In a joint session, the House and Senate meet to count the electoral votes for president, certifying the winner, who won at least 270 of the electors’ votes.

Jan. 20: The president is sworn in in an inauguration ceremony, and at noon on this day begins his four-year term.

Things to watch for

What if Trump and Biden tie?

If Trump and Biden tie with 269 electoral votes each, Stanford historian Jonathan Gienapp said, "We’re in uncharted territory."

In the only previous tie, in 1876, the two sides eventually cut a deal: Democrats traded the presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes for the end of Reconstruction and a return to white rule in the South and the start of the Jim Crow era of segregation of Black Americans.

But Republicans and Democrats now don’t have anything with as much value as that to trade, Gienapp said. And the final call might end up in the Supreme Court again.

In a tie, the House selects the president, with each state delegation casting one vote for president, and the Senate picks the vice president, with each senator casting one vote. Those elections would be Jan. 6, held right after the joint session that counts and certifies the electoral vote.

Protest or unrest

Activists on both the right and left could end up in the streets as the counting goes on. FBI Director Christopher Wray has testified before Congress about the serious threat of white supremacist and anti-government groups. And liberal groups plan to demonstrate.

"Regardless of the outcome," said Alexis Anderson-Reed, who leads an activist network for oppressed people of color called State Voices, "people will go to the streets and demand justice and express anger or celebration."

Businesses have taken heed, and in cities across the country they have boarded up windows. And police departments are on high alert. "We're preparing for the worst," said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. "Win or lose, someone's going to be unhappy."

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