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Congress Certifies Electoral Votes Amid Protests by Democrats

by Countable | 3.20.17

Today the ballots of Electoral College voters were certified and tallied before a joint session of Congress overseen by VIce President Joe Biden, and the official winner of the 2016 presidential election was declared. While the count ultimately confirmed that President-elect Donald Trump won the election, the process does allow for members of Congress to object to individual electoral votes which added some intrigue to an otherwise straightforward process.

What happens in the joint session?

Congress convenes in the House chamber and the vice president presides over the joint session. The electoral ballots are delivered (this time in mahogany boxes), unsealed, and read. When the ballots are read, the vice president asks if there are any objections, and if any are raised by both a representative and a senator that starts a review process we’ll describe below. Once all the votes are read and counted, the final tally is announced and the next president and vice president are officially announced.

Why is the vice president involved?

The vice president is also the president of the Senate and with that comes the responsibility of overseeing its formal ceremonies, like the swearing in of new senators or sitting next to the Speaker of the House during the State of the Union Address. Supervising the electoral vote count has in the past put sitting vice presidents in an awkward position, like when Al Gore had to declare his rival for the presidency, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, the winner of the 2000 presidential election.

How do members object to electoral votes?

When one or more electoral votes from a given state (or the District of Columbia) are read, at least one senator and one representative have to raise an objection in writing. They can raise objections over whether an electoral vote was legally certified, or whether the vote was not "regularly given" by the elector.

If a representative and senator both object, the joint session is suspended and the House and Senate debate the objections separately before casting votes on whether to affirm or reject the objection. Both chambers would have to vote to discount the electoral vote, otherwise it would be counted.

The last time an electoral vote was the subject of an objection that caused the House and Senate to consider its legitimacy was 1969, when a "faithless elector" from North Carolina voted for George Wallace for president when they had been expected to vote for Richard Nixon. Because the faithless elector came from a state that didn’t bind its electors to the winner of the state’s popular vote, the objection wasn’t approved and the vote was counted.

What happened during today’s joint session?

Several House Democrats had said that they planned to contest electoral votes during the joint session, and they followed through with that promise. Electoral votes from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming were challenged by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Maxine Waters (D-CA), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), and Jim McGovern (D-MA).

Despite their protests, no senators were willing to second their objections, so as a result Congress never had to debate whether or not to discard any electoral votes. The final tally was the same as the results of the Electoral College vote on December 19: Trump-304, Hillary Clinton-227, Colin Powell-3, Ron Paul-1, Sen. Bernie Sanders-1, Gov. John Kasich-1, and Faith Spotted Eagle-1.

— Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: Flickr user US Capitol / Public Domain)

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