FAQs: How will the Electoral College count work?

Wednesday’s joint session of Congress to count Electoral College votes from the presidential election is a largely ceremonial event that in the past has taken as little as 23 minutes.

But with objections threatened by House and Senate Republicans, it has the potential to play out for more than 24 hours.

At least 13 GOP senators and more than 100 House members have said they will object to state electors, in an effort to show support for President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud.

President-elect Joe Biden received 306 electoral votes, while Trump received 232 electoral votes. At least 270 electoral votes are needed to be elected president.

How did we get the Electoral College, and why do we still have it?

“The Constitution is clear; the results of the election are clear; the conclusion of courts of the land is clear,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said on Tuesday. “I expect without a doubt that the report of the Electoral College and the 306 electoral votes that Mr. Biden got will be confirmed at the end of this process.”

Here’s what you need to know.

  • Q: What is Congress doing?
  • Federal law calls for Congress to meet on Jan. 6, and each state submits sealed certificates that include their electoral votes from the presidential election. The certificates come into the House chamber in mahogany boxes, which are then opened and recorded during the 1 p.m. joint session.

    The count affirms the results of the election and the votes of the states, which have already certified their vote counts. The states certified their results on Dec. 14.

  • Q: What role does Vice President Mike Pence have?
  • Pence presides over the session in a largely ceremonial role, as president of the Senate. As vice presidents have in the past, Pence’s role is ultimately to announce the winner. In this case, that will be Biden, not Donald Trump. President Trump has falsely suggested that Pence can somehow alter the results of the election. That is not the case.

    While it puts Pence in a tough spot, others before him have been placed in difficult positions. Former Vice President Al Gore, after the tightly contested 2000 election, declared George W. Bush the winner — a race in which Gore had more popular votes. In 2017, Biden presided over the count in which Trump was declared the victor.


  • Q: How will lawmakers' objections work?
  • House and Senate Republicans plan to object to the electoral counts from several swing states. It’s not clear exactly how many they will challenge, but they are expected to include Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania, at a minimum. They may also include Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada.

    The lawmakers will likely outline broad allegations of fraud, which have repeatedly been thrown out in the courts. More than 60 court suits filed by President Trump and GOP supporters have been tossed out, including some that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Depending on how the objections are raised, members of the House and Senate will return to their own chambers as debate takes place. In the House, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., was the first to say he would lead objections. In the Senate, it was Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who is considering a run for president in 2024. He has since been joined by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is also a possible future presidential candidate, as well as nearly a dozen other GOP senators.

  • Q: How long could the process take?
  • Under normal circumstances, the joint session often takes less than an hour — but these are clearly not normal circumstances. The shortest session took 23 minutes, in 2013, according to the Congressional Research Service.

    The joint session lasted just over 40 minutes in 2017.

    It’s unclear exactly how long this session will last, and the duration will depend on the number of states objected to, as well as how long floor debate will take. U.S. Sen Mark Warner, D-Va., said on Tuesday that lawmakers have been given guidance that if six states are objected to, with each state debate period lasting four hours, the overall duration could extend well over 24 hours.

    That would take the session well into Thursday, though there are reports that Republican lawmakers will try to wrap up their political points by Wednesday at midnight.

  • Q: How united are Republicans over this election challenge?
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and members of his Republican caucus have rarely split over issues during President Trump’s term. But the dam has broken with this issue, another political loyalty test for GOP lawmakers regarding Trump.

    McConnell has privately urged Senate Republicans not to object, since it will force them to either go on record against Trump’s wishes or to vote to negate the certified votes of votes of millions of Americans. Senators who don’t support the president are likely to once again face his ire on Twitter, which could lead to their getting primaried in future elections.

  • Q: Is Congress taking special health precautions for the joint session?
  • Getting hundreds of people into the House chambers for the start of the joint session presents major challenges during the pandemic. Hoyer told reporters that precautions and guidelines will be in place, as lawmakers gather together. They must all wear masks, and social distancing is expected to be strictly enforced.

    Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, announced on Monday that she had tested positive for the coronavirus, though she is asymptomatic. Granger was among lawmakers who recently received a vaccination. She had been on the House floor on Sunday, when the 117th Congress convened, before she knew her test result.

  • Q: Bottom line: Will this change the election results?
  • No.

    Even the Republicans who plan to bring about the objections acknowledge they can’t overturn the election results, but they argue it’s important to reflect many Americans’ concerns about how the election was carried out. Democrats and other GOP lawmakers counter that the political fireworks will only undermine voters’ faith in the democratic process. The House remains in the control of Democrats and will not vote to reverse the vote results, which both houses of Congress would have to do. There are also not enough Republican senators on record as challenging the results to change anything.

    So when the session eventually ends, Joe Biden will be poised to become the next president. He and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be sworn in during the inauguration Jan. 20 at the U.S. Capitol.

Mitchell Miller

Mitchell Miller has worked at WTOP since 1996, as a producer, editor, reporter and Senior News Director. After working "behind the scenes," coordinating coverage and reporter coverage for years, Mitchell moved back to his first love -- reporting. He is now WTOP's Capitol Hill reporter.

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