How long can Trump keep disputing the election results?

President Donald Trump’s effort to dispute Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election is well into its second week, with no end yet in sight.

Despite Trump’s failure to produce any evidence of widespread voter fraud and a floundering legal effort so far, the president’s public rhetoric has remained defiant. “Those responsible for the safeguarding of our Constitution cannot allow the Fake results of the 2020 Mail-In Election to stand,” Trump tweeted Sunday night (earning a warning label for misinformation from Twitter). “The World is watching!” Most leading Republicans have not yet acknowledged Trump’s defeat either.

So … how long is this going to go on, exactly?

No one knows for sure what Trump will do. But deadlines looming in the next few weeks may prevent his effort to overturn the election results from having any legal chance of success.

First, the various states all have their own deadlines to certify the election results, making them official. In several key states, those deadlines are fast approaching — for instance, Georgia’s is this Friday. Trump has been trying to slow down or block these certifications, but he’s had little success so far.

Second, the Electoral College will meet and cast the votes that will formally make Joe Biden the president-elect on December 14. Unless Trump can somehow get his own electors appointed in states Biden won, that would make it truly official that he’s lost.

If Republicans have indeed just been “humoring” Trump or indulging him for the time being, as some claim, the state certifications and the Electoral College vote provide an obvious opportunity for them to make it clear to him that enough is enough. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, said last week that “the process” and “our system” will resolve post-election disputes.

Faced with criticism that Trump hasn’t let the transition process officially get started for Biden yet, Republicans like McConnell have tended to point to the disputed election of 2000 as a precedent. That dispute was wrapped up in mid-December — so perhaps we’re looking at a similar timeline for the GOP acknowledging the outcome of this one.

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Sources close to Trump have suggested to reporters that, even if he never rhetorically concedes that he lost, by then he will probably recognize the practical reality and stop fighting to block a Biden presidency. But, of course, we won’t know that for sure until he actually does it.

Certification deadlines are in late November and early December

Federal law sets the deadline for all states to certify their presidential election results and appoint electors at December 8. But the various states have set earlier deadlines for themselves, and the Washington Post’s Elise Viebeck and Daniela Santamariña put together an excellent rundown of all the important dates to watch.

Each certification that Biden won in a swing state will be a blow to Trump’s efforts to dispute the election.

First up among the key states Biden won is Georgia — its deadline is this Friday, November 20. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has made clear he views this as a hard deadline. Currently, Georgia is conducting a statewide audit of all its votes by hand, and it’s reportedly on track to wrap up by 11:59 pm on Wednesday. (Biden leads by 14,000 votes there, so it’s very unlikely the audit will put Trump ahead.)

There is one potential wrinkle here: Though the audit has sometimes been referred to as a “recount,” it technically is not one. And after Georgia certifies its vote, Trump’s campaign would be able to request an actual recount that the state would pay for. So there might be a bit more action in Georgia after the certification deadline — though, again, Biden’s lead is likely too big to be overcome in a recount.

The next domino to fall may be Michigan, which has its certification deadline early next week, on Monday, November 23. Biden’s lead in Michigan — 146,000 votes, a 2.65 percent margin — is the biggest in any of these contested states. Still, one potential issue here is that results must be certified by the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers, which has two Democratic and two Republican appointees. Some are worried that the GOP appointees might decide to ignore the clear outcome in their state due to conspiracy theories about fraud. On Monday, we’ll find out whether they will.

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Pennsylvania does not have a specific state deadline to certify results, according to Viebeck and Santamariña, but its deadline for county-level certifications is also Monday, November 23. The Democratic secretary of the commonwealth, Kathy Boockvar, will then have the authority to certify the result.

Nevada is next, with certification scheduled to take place on Tuesday, November 24. But the final key deadlines are after Thanksgiving — Arizona on November 30, and Wisconsin on December 1. (Trump can ask for a recount in Wisconsin, but he’d have to fork over the hefty sum of $7.9 million to do so; he has to decide on it by this Wednesday.) It’s also worth noting that these are all deadlines for states to certify, but they can potentially do it earlier than the deadline.

The electoral votes make things official in mid-December

Generally, in these states, certification is tied to the next stage in the process — the appointment of the electors, the 538 people who will comprise the Electoral College and cast the votes that will technically choose our next president. If Biden is certified the winner in a state, his electors get appointed (though Republican state legislatures could theoretically try to challenge this, such a challenge would be legally dubious at best).

If Biden electors are appointed in the states Biden won, then everything would be on track for him to win. The electoral votes themselves technically would not be cast until December 14. Once those votes are cast, they will be publicly known (though Congress technically won’t “count” those votes until January).

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This is the “process” and the “system” that McConnell has pointed to that will settle the election’s outcome. This is also when the 2000 election, which Republicans have pointed to as a precedent (although it was much closer and the contestation was serious), was settled.

So if the key state results are certified in late November and early December as planned, and especially once the electoral votes are cast in mid-December, it will become much harder for Trump to sustain this dispute.

That doesn’t mean he won’t keep trying. But recent reports have suggested that Trump sees the writing on the wall and is thinking about how to make a face-saving exit — perhaps by announcing a 2024 campaign.