A U.S. Capitol Police officer stands watch on Independence Avenue before dawn as the House and Senate prepare to convene a joint session to count the electoral votes cast in November's election.
( AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Cindy Rodriguez: Back with you on The Takeaway, I'm Cindy Rodriguez, in for Tanzina Vega. We're going to end today's show talking about the Electoral College count, happening in Congress today. It's the final step in certifying Joe Biden as our nation's next president. Historically, the vote count is a largely ceremonial process, but like everything else with the election cycle, the proceedings are expected to be more contentious than usual. A number of Republicans in both the House and Senate have said they would challenge the results in today's joint session.
Here to discuss all this and more is Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Sarah, thank you so much for joining us.
Sarah Binder: Sure. Thanks for having me.
Cindy: Let's just start with some basics. What is the point of today's proceeding, and why do we have this count?
Sarah: The point here is to count up all of the Electoral College votes which were cast in the states as we follow in the constitution. The constitution said it's not enough just to have the state's Electoral College meet, we're going to count them all up, one final count, and it's going to be done by the Congress, sitting together with the vice-president presiding because he's the president of the Senate. The point here is to make sure and to review, essentially, all the certificates, but really, it's a counting exercise of following the constitution and the laws that have elaborated the details for the day.
Cindy: Okay, so then to clarify, they're not certifying, they're just counting.
Sarah: They're really not certifying. In the wake of a very contested election in the late 19th century, the Congress and the president signed into law a very strict set of procedures, and those procedures, the Electoral Count Act, that does the hard work of the certification. What's really happening here is these certified, really certificates, are sent to Washington, to the vice-president, to the national archives.
The vice-president is told in the constitution, essentially, to open up the envelopes and hand them to tellers who will count them. It really is a counting exercise, which is, as we'll see, is why it's given a lot of eye-rolling and a lot of concern about the fact that there's going to be challengers, potentially, on the floor during today's counting of the electoral votes.
Cindy: Right. Talk about that a little bit. How have the president's ongoing claims about voter fraud affected the process or the perception of it? Is it fair to say that this year's count is like no other in history?
Sarah: I think it's fair to say here that we have not had anything so contested since that election of 1876. We have had over a century of very, very non-dramatic; very heavy on ceremony, very light on drama; with an occasional protest here or there, but it's really been seen as a waving a flag about an issue about voting in Ohio in 2004, or about voting in Florida in 2001, but it's always been seen as just a final "Let's make a small stand here."
What has to happen here and why we're facing this much more dramatic episode today, is that the president's allegations of fraud, despite having been rejected by dozens of state and federal courts, including the Supreme Court, despite those rejections of his claims, the president has really turned today's Assembly into, really, a litmus test. "Are you with me or against me?", and that has removed the attention. They're not really quibbling about whether or not these are valid certificates of votes, or whether they've been lawfully certified. They're not really doing that. They say they are, the Republican opponents, but what they're really doing is, it's a loyalty test.
Now for the president's perspective, I hesitate to get into his mind, but the president's perspective is pushing, pushing, pushing Vice-President Pence to basically throw out the valid votes, which is not a power the vice-president has.
Cindy: Right. Let's talk about these objections. If someone does formally object to a state's election results, what happens next?
Sarah: The process is written into the law, and it says that a House member must have the consent of a Senate member. They both have to put their objection into writing, and then when a state is called, if you are going to object to Arizona, you rise and get recognized to make that objection. Now, if you check the boxes: House member, Senate member, have it written on paper, then-- remember, they're in joint session, the House and Senate. The Senate has to-- we're in the House chamber though, the Senate, and the senators, have to walk back to the Senate chamber. The House will meet separately. The Senate meets separately. The law says you can debate for two hours, but no more, and then there's an up or down vote on that objection. It takes a majority vote in the chamber, but the law also says you need a bicameral agreement. The House has to object it, and the Senate has to object the state's electoral votes in order to actually not count those votes.
Cindy: That's quite a process. Do you expect this to be hours, days? What is your expectation, if you have one?
Sarah: There's a little uncertainty about how far Republicans want to go. There seems to be some agreement amongst Senate Republicans that they will challenge Arizona, that they will be challenging Pennsylvania, and that they want to challenge Georgia. However, on the House side, there's support for challenging several more. Let's say they did three challenges and each state is done separately, and we know that there's up to a two-hour debate, so that's six hours right there. We're under COVID restrictions in the way they vote in the House, and so you have to add at least a half-hour, maybe an hour, to each of those votes and the senators have to walk back and forth, and so forth.
Conceptually, we're talking about a 12-hour into the wee hours of the night. However, these are senators. They don't like to spend a lot [chuckles] of time trudging back and forth, as we say in Washington. Sometimes, when they're about to go, and they are going to go and recess until the inauguration, we think, sometimes, we say they smell jet fumes, they're ready to go home. So I don't think we can eliminate the possibility that after one or two objections, three at most, that they call it quits.
Cindy: All right, we have a minute left. Let's talk about Mike Pence. You mentioned him earlier. What's the role of the vice-president, and does he have any real power?
Sarah: The vice president is a glorified letter opener today. That's his role. He opens the envelope, he hands them to the House and Senate tellers, and at the end, he reports back the numbers. He doesn't even say [chuckles] who is elected. He just announces who has how many votes.
Cindy: Okay. Is there any chance that today will alter the results of the November's presidential election?
Sarah: It may take a while to get there, but at the end, Biden and Harris will be president and vice-president-elect for sure.
Cindy: We will leave it there. Sarah Binder is a professor of political science at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Sarah, thank you very much for being here.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.