A joint meeting of Congress to approve the results of the electoral count is usually a routine ceremonial act. But President Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to challenge Democrat Joe Biden’s victory will bring more attention than usual to the joint Senate-House meeting next Wednesday, January 6.
The congressional vote count is the latest step in confirming Biden’s victory after the Electoral College formally elected him on December 14. The procedure in Congress is required by the Constitution and includes several distinct steps.
Some Republicans, who echo Trump’s unsubstantiated allegations of fraud, have said they will formally object to the results, which could lead to a voting procedure in the Senate, where the majority belongs to Republicans, and in the House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, which will almost certainly fail. A group of Republicans in the House of Representatives (according to the latest data, more than 140 congressmen intend to challenge the election results) were looking for a senator to sign, because for forced voting there must be the support of at least one member of each house. On Wednesday, that support was provided by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, a possible candidate for the 2024 Republican primaries.
Hawley’s problem arises despite Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s call for Republican Senators not to join the House’s futile efforts. McConnell told his congregation during a private conversation earlier this month that Senate Republicans will have to take this “terrible vote.”
What happens when Congress meets in January?
Federal law requires Congress to meet on January 6 to open a sealed certificate from each state that contains a record of electoral votes. The certificates are carried in mahogany boxes. Representatives from both parties in both chambers read the results aloud and conduct an official count. Senate President Vice President Mike Pence chairs the meeting and announces the winner.
What does the Constitution require?
The constitution requires Congress to meet and count the electoral votes. In the event of a tie, the House of Representatives decides on the election of the President, with each Congress delegation having one vote. Such a procedure has not happened since the 1800s, and Biden’s victory in the election over Trump was convincing – 306-232.
Both chambers meet at noon to count the votes. If the vice president is unable to preside, there is a precedent for the pro-tempore senate or the longest-serving senator in the majority party to chair the meeting. It is currently Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
The presiding officer will open and present the state vote certificates in alphabetical order. Designated “enumerators” from each house, members of both parties, then read each testimony aloud. Counters record and count votes. The presiding officer announces who has received the most votes for both the president and vice president.
What if there is an objection?
After the final count of the state’s votes is announced, any Congressman can stand up and object to the vote of that state for any reason. But the presiding officer will respond to such an objection only if it is submitted in writing and signed by both a member of the House of Representatives and a member of the Senate.
If there is such a joint request, then the joint meeting is suspended, and the House of Representatives and the Senate meet in separate meetings to consider it. For an objection to be upheld, both houses must agree with it by a simple majority. If this does not happen, the initial electoral votes are counted.
Such an objection was last considered in 2005, when Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio and Senator Barbara Boxer of California, both Democrats, objected to voting in the Ohio election, arguing that there were voting irregularities. Both Chambers discussed the objection and dismissed it. Such a vote was held only for the second time in history.
Can a challenge be successful?
This is highly unlikely given that the House of Representatives is controlled by Democrats and that several Senate Republicans, including McConnell, have acknowledged Biden’s victory.
McConnell asked his fellow Republican senators on December 15 not to join the House objection.
Several other respected Republicans agreed with this. The second-oldest Republican in the Senate, South Dakota Senator John Thune, said earlier in December that if the Senate were forced to vote on the issue, he had no doubt the election results would be recognized. Thune said it makes no sense to put Senators to vote when “you know what the final outcome will be.”
Republican Senator John Cornin of Texas said any such efforts by Republicans in Congress would be “futile” and misguided.
There is no evidence of massive electoral fraud, as confirmed by a number of voting officials and William Barr, who stepped down as US attorney general last week.
What is Pence’s role?
The role of the vice president as presiding over the Senate is often awkward. For example, for Mike Pence, who will be tasked with declaring Biden’s victory – and his defeat – after the electoral votes are counted. This will be especially difficult for the former Indiana congressman because his boss Trump refused to admit defeat.
But he will not be the first vice president to get into trouble. In 2001, Vice President Al Gore oversaw the vote count for the 2000 presidential election, when he narrowly lost to Republican George W. Bush. Gore was forced to abandon a number of Democratic objections. In 2016, Biden topped the tally that declared Trump the winner. Biden also rejected objections from House Democrats, which did not receive Senate support.
Congress has counted the votes, what’s next?
The joint meeting is the last formal opportunity for objection beyond the court cases that have so far proved ineffective for Trump and his team.
“I think there comes a point where you have to realize that despite your best efforts, you have failed,” Kornin said in December.