EXPLAINER: How Congress will count Electoral College votes


WASHINGTON (AP) — The congressional joint session to count electoral votes is generally a routine, ceremonious affair. But President Donald Trump’s repeated, baseless efforts to challenge Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential victory will bring more attention than usual to the Jan. 6 joint session of the Senate and the House.

The congressional count is the final step in reaffirming Biden’s presidential win, after the Electoral College officially elected him on Monday. The meeting is required by the U.S. Constitution, and includes several distinct steps.


A handful of House Republicans have signaled that they want to object to the results, a move that could force separate votes in the Senate and the House. But to do so, they would need a senator to sign on. And even if a senator did support the effort, the move would almost certainly fail.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately asked his caucus not to do that, saying it would be a “terrible vote” for the Senate to have to take, according to two people familiar with the Republican meeting and granted anonymity to discuss it.

A look at the joint session:


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

Bipartisan representatives of both 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.


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 Joe Biden’s electoral win over Trump was decisive, 306-232.


The two chambers meet midday on Jan. 6th to count the votes. If the vice president can’t 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 Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-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 then record and count the votes, and the presiding officer announces who has won the majority votes for both president and vice president.


After a teller reads the certificate from a state, any member can stand up and object to that state’s vote on any grounds. However, 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 suspends 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.


On a GOP caucus call Tuesday, McConnell asked his fellow Republican senators not to join in any House objection, saying they would have to vote it down and it would be “terrible,” according to the people familiar with the meeting.

It is unclear if any senator has seriously considered doing so. Many senators have ruled it out, including Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, one of Trump’s chief allies on Capitol Hill, who is holding a hearing Wednesday looking at whether there were “irregularities” in the election. There was no widespread fraud in the election, as has been confirmed by a range of election officials and Attorney General William Barr.

A spokesman for Johnson, Austin Altenburg, said Tuesday that Johnson has “no plans” to join a House challenge to the results.

On Monday, after the electoral college vote, Texas Sen. John Cornyn said any such effort by congressional Republicans would be “futile” and a mistake.


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 as 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, and had to gavel several Democrats’ objections out of order. In 2016, Biden presided over the count that declared Trump the winner and also shot down objections from House Democrats that did not have any Senate support.


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 told reporters, saying he hopes anyone entertaining the idea of an objection would realize that it “would be futile and it’s unnecessary.”


Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.