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How Congress Will Count Electoral College Votes

FILE - Dusk falls as Congressional leaders work, at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 21, 2020.
FILE - Dusk falls as Congressional leaders work, at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 21, 2020.

The congressional joint session to count electoral votes is generally a routine, ceremonial affair. But President Donald Trump's repeated efforts to challenge Democrat Joe Biden's victory will bring more attention than usual to next Wednesday's joint session of the Senate and the House.

The congressional count is the final step in reaffirming Biden's win, after the Electoral College officially elected him on Dec 14. The meeting is required by the Constitution and includes several distinct steps.

Some Republicans who are echoing Trump's baseless claims of fraud have said they will officially object to the results, forcing votes in the Republican-run Senate and the Democratic-controlled House that will almost certainly fail. A group of House Republicans had been looking for a senator to sign on because there must be support from at least one member of each chamber to force the votes. That support came Wednesday from Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, a possible contender in the 2024 Republican presidential primary.

Hawley's challenge comes despite a plea from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that Republican senators not join the futile House effort. McConnell told his caucus on a private call earlier this month that it would be a "terrible vote" for Senate Republicans to have to take.

A look at the joint session:

What Happens When Congress Meets in January?

Under federal law, Congress must meet Jan. 6 to open a sealed certificate from each state that contains a record of its electoral votes. The votes are brought into the chamber in mahogany boxes.

Bipartisan representatives of the two chambers read the results out loud and do an official count. The president of the Senate, Vice President Mike Pence, presides over the session and declares the winner.

What Does The Constitution Require?

The Constitution requires Congress to meet and count the electoral votes. If there is a tie, then the House decides the presidency, with each congressional delegation having one vote. That hasn't happened since the 1800s, and Biden's electoral win over Trump was decisive, 306-232.

How Does The Session Unfold?

The two chambers meet midday to count the votes. If the vice president cannot preside, there is precedent for the Senate pro-tempore, or the longest-serving senator in the majority party, to lead the session. That's currently Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

The presiding officer opens and presents the certificates of the electoral votes in alphabetical order of the states. The appointed "tellers" from each chamber, members of both parties, then read each certificate out loud. The tellers record and count the votes, The presiding officer announces who has won the majority votes for both president and vice president.

What If There's An Objection?

After a teller reads the certificate from a state, any member can stand up and object to that state's vote on any grounds. But the presiding officer will not hear the objection unless it is in writing and signed by both a member of the House and a member of the Senate.

If there is such a joint request, then the joint session is suspended and the House and Senate go into separate sessions to consider it. For the objection to be sustained, both chambers must agree to it by a simple majority vote. If they do not both agree, the original electoral votes are counted.

The last time such an objection was considered was 2005, when Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, both Democrats, objected to Ohio's electoral votes by claiming there were voting irregularities. Both chambers debated the objection and rejected it. It was only the second time such a vote had occurred.

Might A Challenge Succeed?

It's extremely unlikely, given that the House is controlled by Democrats and that several Senate Republicans, including McConnell, have acknowledged Biden's victory.

McConnell asked his fellow Republican senators on the private call on December 15 not to join in any House objection.

Several other high-ranking Republicans agreed. The Senate's No. 2 Republican, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, said earlier this month that if the Senate were forced to vote on a challenge "it would go down like a shot dog." Thune said it didn't make sense to put senators through a vote when "you know what the ultimate outcome is gonna be."

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said any such effort by congressional Republicans would be "futile" and a mistake.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the election, as has been confirmed by a range of election officials and by William Barr, who stepped down as attorney general last week.

What Is Pence's Role?

The role of the vice president as presiding officer is often an awkward one, as it will be for Pence, who will be charged with announcing Biden's victory — and his own defeat — once the electoral votes are counted. It will be especially tense for the former Indiana congressman because his boss, Trump, has refused to concede.

But he won't be the first vice president put in an uncomfortable situation. In 2001, Vice President Al Gore presided over the counting of the 2000 presidential election he narrowly lost to Republican George W. Bush. Gore had to gavel several Democrats' objections out of order. In 2016, Biden presided over the count that declared Trump the winner. Biden also shot down objections from House Democrats that did not have any Senate support.

Once Congress Counts The votes, What's Next?

The joint session is the last official chance for objections, beyond court cases that have so far proven ineffective for Trump and his team.

"I think there comes a time when you have to realize that, despite your best efforts you've been unsuccessful," Cornyn said earlier this month.