There’s basically one important date left in the 2020 election cycle prior to Inauguration Day: January 6, 2021. That is the date when Vice President Pence presides over the official counting of electoral college votes. Republicans in the House have already indicated they will object to the results in multiple states. A few Republicans in the Senate have left the door open to whether they will join in. So what will January 6 look like in that event? Let’s walk through it – but first let’s start with some relevant motives.
There have been plenty of objections raised in past elections – including by Democrats – but they’ve always been symbolic, meaning there was no real intent or expectation of overturning the results. To be clear, that will be the case this coming January 6 as well. It’s not at all clear how intelligent the objecting Representatives in the House are, but it’s probably safe to assume they can follow the rudimentary logic as to why the election can’t be overturned – we’ll get into that in a moment. Any process surrounding objections will be entirely about political grandstanding. This is where it is important to revisit the difference between Representatives and Senators. Representatives are voted into office by their districts, while Senators are voted into office by entire states. Representatives also have to come up for re-election every two years, whereas Senators are re-elected every six. These are the major reasons why the position of Senator generally holds more prestige: you have to convince a much broader range of people that you’re the answer, and you have to convince them to live with that choice for three times as long. Senators must therefore be much more careful about pandering to any one political base. Representatives, on the other hand, are forced to do the opposite – they MUST pander to the dominant political base in their districts, otherwise they will be gone in two years. Yet another reason I shall remain opposed to the concept of re-election until I issue my final breath.
The House Republicans that latched on to the Texas election lawsuit earlier this month like so many red barnacles did not do so because they thought it had any chance of succeeding. They did so because they wanted the most fervent Trump supporters in their districts to see that they were “fighting to the very end” for Trump. This was a political calculation and nothing more for each and every Republican in the House – and that will be similarly reflected on January 6. House Republicans with a sufficient percentage of fervent Trump supporters in their districts will throw their hats in the ring for objections, and House Republicans with sufficiently centrist voter percentages will not.
Meanwhile, for the Senators, it will come down to a state-wide assessment – meaning only the reddest of red states have Senators that would even consider it. It is important to note that while many House Republicans have already expressed their plans to object, not a single Senator has done so as yet. The question there is, why? Why wait? What could possibly change between now and January 6 that would tilt their decision one way or the other? They can’t possibly believe any evidence of widespread fraud will pop up between now and then, when nothing has popped up in the past two months. No, the only significant remaining event between now and January 6 is the Georgia runoff election on January 5. And Republicans are desperate to keep Trump supporters engaged enough to retain the Senate for them on that day. If at least a few Senators keep the door open, it gives the most fervent Trump supporters hope that they can still get their wish for an overturned election – even though they can’t (and a troubling many of them don’t understand that). In terms of whether Republican Senators will join in the objections on January 6, will it even matter who won the runoffs? Probably not – especially since there is a fair chance we won’t know the winners that quickly. But once January 5 passes, there will be no more political reason to keep Trump supporters’ hopes alive. That leaves open the distinct possibility that no Republican Senators will join in the objections, sparing us hours of pointless speeches and pre-determined votes.
So how would it unfold if an objection is raised for a particular state’s results? Someone from the House would object, and someone from the Senate would need to join in. If no one from the Senate joins in, the objection dies right there – and this has happened many times in our past. If someone from the Senate does join in, then the two houses convene amongst themselves for a couple of hours, and then they vote on whether to “sustain” the objection. This has happened recently as well – when Barbara Boxer joined in on objections to the results in Ohio in 2004 – again, as a symbolic protest, in that case against voter suppression. The only way the objection is “sustained” is if both houses vote in favor of it. And here is where the inevitability sets in. The Democrats have the majority in the House, meaning they will vote the objection down, probably with Republicans in more centrist districts joining in, meaning it won’t even be close. Meanwhile, in the Senate, even with a Republican majority, enough Senators have already made it clear that they view Biden as the President-elect, there is little chance even they will support the objection. In fact, it may not even be close. So the House ensures the election results won’t be overturned in that state, and the Senate probably underscores it.
So how will this play out across the 50 states and the District of Columbia on January 6? First, an interesting twist: the count is always done alphabetically by state, and once a candidate hits 270 votes, it’s basically over – that candidate is declared the President-elect by Congress. The latest reports suggest the House Republicans plan to initiate the objection process in as many as six states – coincidentally (not) the same six states in which the majority of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election have taken place since Biden was projected as the winner on November 7: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – leading to as many as 12 hours of pointless debate along the way to the inevitable result. If this is truly their plan, perhaps my estimation of their logic skills earlier was a tad high. The count will never make it to Wisconsin – Biden will cross the 270 vote threshold when Vermont’s 3 electoral votes are counted. In fact, this is often the fate of the “W” states, the poor bastards.
But let’s back up from that for a second. The next “disputed” state up the alphabet from Wisconsin is Pennsylvania. But by the time the counting reaches Pennsylvania, there will only be a total of 30 electoral votes remaining between Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, meaning even in an alternate universe where one could imagine those states “flipping”, it would still leave Biden with 276. So objecting when Pennsylvania counts makes no mathematical sense. Backing up even further from that to Nevada – that state has 6 electoral votes, meaning the total of that plus Pennsylvania and Wisconsin is 36 – which still leaves Biden with 270. The last “disputed” state where it makes any mathematical (but again, not logical) sense to object is therefore the state of Michigan. Once that objection is resoundingly squashed, there aren’t enough electoral votes remaining to overturn, even in Fantasyland. Now – perhaps the House Republicans will want to keep objecting anyway, but my guess is that any Senators that might have been onboard will say “enough” at that point, and so we will only spend six hours listening to this nonsense instead of twelve.
Backing up even further from that – how willing will the Senators be to have this debate more than even once? That would seem to be sufficient as a symbolic gesture to the Trump supporters in their states. When the House makes it clear they will not flip Arizona’s results, and when the Senate likely does the same, will any Senators be on board for repeating the process two more times? What could possibly convince them the votes would be any different with respect to the Georgia or Michigan results?
So, to sum up: House Republicans seem to think they will make this process last twelve more hours than it should. But the last two hours (Wisconsin) will never occur, leaving us at ten hours. And Nevada and Pennsylvania won’t make mathematical sense, likely leaving us at six hours. And Georgia and Michigan would just be repeats of Arizona, leaving a fair chance the Arizona objection is the only one we’ll have to endure. It all boils down to how far any Senators are willing to go. We could even spend zero hours on debates, if the few potentially rogue Senators are only holding out through the Georgia runoffs.
However many hours are wasted, none of them will change the result: Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on January 20. But we might want to set our “DVRs” to record the proceedings on January 6, to let future generations of Congresspeople know just how silly they can be made to look.