(CNN) — The next crucial step in the United States’ Pony Express version of democracy is upon us — and so is the final opportunity in President Donald Trump’s desperate quest to overturn results from the election he lost.
Wednesday is the culmination of the Electoral College process, when states’ votes determined by the results of the November 3 general election are formally counted during a joint session of Congress. We know the results — Biden won 306 electoral votes, beating Trump’s 232 — but the congressional session seals Joe Biden’s victory, ahead of his inauguration on January 20.
The months-long series of events between Election Day and Inauguration Day are laid out by the Constitution and federal law, and are normally just ceremonial. While Trump continues to pressure officials in key states to revisit their vote counts, it will be Republican lawmakers acting on his behalf who will carry out the last ugly gasp of overtly anti-democratic objections to accepting electoral votes from swing states Trump lost.
Read on for what we know about what will happen Wednesday and a brief recap of how we got here. If you’re interested in further reading, here’s a Congressional Research Service report on how the count should proceed. And here’s the text of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which created the current system.
What’s the Electoral College again?
Americans do not directly elect the President. Instead, voters who go to the polls on Election Day are technically voting for electors who, according to the system laid out by the Constitution, meet in their respective states and vote for President and Vice President. Here’s the timeline:
- Voters voted in their states on or before Election Day, Nov. 3.
- States counted ballots and settled election disputes in court on or before Dec. 8.
- Electors cast their votes for the winner of each state on Dec.14.
- The votes will be counted in Congress on Jan. 6.
- Joe Biden will be sworn in Jan. 20 at noon.
What exactly is happening during this ceremony on Wednesday, January 6?
What we’ll see Wednesday is Vice President Mike Pence, who is technically president of the US Senate, convening the two chambers at 1 p.m. ET to officially count the Electoral College votes, which are traditionally presented in large and ornate leather-lined mahogany boxes.
Four lawmakers designated as “tellers” — two from the House and two from the Senate — will read off the certificates of vote from each state. They’ll do it alphabetically starting with Alabama.
The process usually takes about an hour, but this year it could go many hours because some Republicans plan to object to certain states — a step that will force up to two hours of debate for each state. All of those objections will be voted on, and are expected to fail.
At the end, Pence will read off the vote totals that qualify Biden to take the oath of office on January 20.
Tellers? Certificates of vote? What language is this?
This is the legalese of the 19th century. This official, scripted show was laid out in the Electoral Count Act of 1887, a law passed after the contested election of 1876.
Tellers are appointed by the House and Senate to read the certificates of ascertainment. This year they are Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Reps. Zoe Lofgren of California and Rodney Davis of Illinois, the chair and ranking members of the House and Senate rules committees.
Certificates of vote are the official tallies of each state’s electoral vote. Copies are sent to Washington for counting, but copies also kept in each state and by courts for backup.
What opportunities do Republicans have to challenge the results?
Objections are why this year’s ceremonial counting could take so long. Lawmakers can object if they feel a state’s electors were not properly or legally chosen. What’s different this year is they will force debate on those objections.
Lawmakers have every right to object to a state’s electoral votes and they often do. Watch here to see Biden, then still vice president, swat away Democratic objections to Trump’s election during the 2017 version of this ceremony.
This year, for first time since California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer objected to President George W. Bush’s Ohio win in 2005, senators have said they will join in House objections, forcing debate. (The only other time that’s happened since 1887 was in 1969, when one elector bucked the popular results to cast a vote for George Wallace.)
At each objection put in writing and signed by both a congressman and senator, the joint session is paused and the House and Senate adjourn to separately consider it. Both the House and Senate then vote on whether to sustain the objection.
What happens when there is an objection?
An objection has to be raised in writing and endorsed by a congressman and senator. Then the two chambers — House and Senate — adjourn to consider the objection.
These sessions, which could have the feel of a sort of trial as lawmakers make their cases, can only last for a maximum of two hours. Each lawmaker can be recognized for up to five minutes of talking, although they can yield to their time to other lawmakers. Then, both chambers separately vote.
All this happens simultaneously, so be ready to flip between streams of the House and Senate.
How many objections will there be?
We don’t know. Trump-supporting lawmakers have suggested they’ll object to the electoral votes of six swing states that went for Biden — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Will they raise objections and force a two-hour debate over each one? That remains to be seen. But if they exhaust all possible time, that would mean the process lasts until the early hours of Thursday morning.
Is it possible that these objections jeopardize the outcome?
No. Democrats have a majority in the House, so no objection will pass that chamber. A number of Republicans in the Senate have already said they will vote against the objections, which makes it impossible for an objection to pass there, either.
But there will be a large number of Republican lawmakers — perhaps 140 in the House, a majority of Republicans there — and more a dozen Republican senators who will vote to sustain the objections and undermine Biden’s victory. That’s a remarkable endorsement of antidemocratic behavior by a major political party and it should be remembered whenever one of those Republicans talks about democracy in the future.
Is there any other room for surprise?
There will be protests for sure. Trump has encouraged supporters to come too the Capitol as the votes are counted.
Also, keep an eye on Pence. He plays a very visible role in this process — asking the tellers to count the votes, keeping order in the joint session, responding to objections and, at the end, announcing the official vote tally that will officially make Biden the President-elect.
Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert had led a legal effort to compel Pence to not recognize the electoral votes from swing states, but Pence had responded in court that the lawsuit was inappropriate and a federal judge threw the lawsuit out.
If Pence were to try to reject any votes, his actions as chair could be appealed and overruled, according to former Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin. (Read more about the pressure on Pence here.)
Even if Trump’s allies were somehow able to get electoral votes they don’t like thrown out, it wouldn’t make Trump the next President. If no candidate has 270 electoral votes — and Trump does not — choosing the President goes to the House. Each state’s delegation gets one vote.
While Democrats control the chamber, Republicans actually control more state delegations, so this would be to Trump’s advantage. But again, with some brave Republicans in the House and Senate rejecting the effort by their party colleagues to overthrow the election, the only realistic end result is that Pence, after all objections are heard and voted on and all the electoral votes are counted, will officially announce Biden’s victory. The end.