Congress’ count of Electoral College votes could be most contentious in 144 years. Here are past dramatic moments – USA TODAY

Joey Garrison

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WASHINGTON – Marking a dramatic conclusion to a bitter election, Vice President Mike Pence is set to preside Wednesday over a special joint session of Congress that will cement President-elect Joe Biden’s election win – and a loss for President Donald Trump and himself.

The scene sets the stage for perhaps the most contentious electoral vote count in 144 years after Trump worked two months to overturn Biden’s Nov. 3 election victory. 

The usually perfunctory joint sessions have had past moments of tension. Vice President Al Gore oversaw his election loss against President George W. Bush following a fiercely fought recount battle in Florida decided by the Supreme Court.

Audiotape: Trump is heard on recording pressuring Georgia secretary of state to ‘find’ votes

But as Trump encourages protests Wednesday in Washington on his baseless voter fraud claims – and Republicans in Congress oppose certification – this year’s session could be the most divisive since the election of 1876.

Further heightening the tensions is an explosive audio tape obtained by the Washington Post in which Trump is heard pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to reverse his loss to Biden in Georgia.

At Wednesday’s joint session of Congress, Pence, serving in his capacity as president of the Senate, will be tasked with opening the electoral certificates from each state alphabetically to count the votes. At the session’s conclusion, Pence, like Gore 20 years ago, is supposed to announce the winner.

Biden defeated Trump 306-232 in the Dec. 14 Electoral College vote. But procedural fireworks are expected throughout. A large faction of House Republicans, led by Mo Brooks, R-Ala., intend to object to electoral votes from some states. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and 10 other senators have they said they will sign on to the objections.

More: A dozen Republican senators plan to object to certification of Biden’s election win over Trump

The effort is doomed to fail, lacking the votes in the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-led Senate. And while it wouldn’t be the first time a president-elect’s electoral votes were contested by members of the opposing party – it also happened in 2001, 2005 and 2017, each led by Democrats – none of these instances had the level of Republican resistance expected Wednesday.

Here are some of the past dramatic and controversial moments in Congress’ counting of Electoral College votes:

1877: Hayes-Tilden dispute comes close to constitutional crisis

The election of 1876, won by Republican Rutherford B. Hayes over Democrat Samuel Tilden, still remains the most fiercely contested in U.S. history – even after the 2000 election and last November’s election.

More: ‘It really is over now’: The 24 hours that likely thwarted Trump’s effort to overturn the election 

The two parties in Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana and Oregon, both claimed victories and submitted electoral votes from rival slates of electors, presenting a constitutional crisis before Congress.

A fight also ensued over the electoral votes of Vermont, won by Hayes, but contested by Tilden.

Congress established a bipartisan electoral commission to reach a solution. Through the Compromise of 1877, Hayes emerged the winner after he appeased Southern Democrats by agreeing to pull federal troops out of the South and ushering in the end of Reconstruction. 

More: ‘The moment of truth’: The Electoral College prepares to hand Trump the loss he refuses to accept

Hayes ultimately won Vermont, Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana, leading him to a 185-184 electoral win, the narrowest in U.S. history.

“We came within two days of having simultaneous inauguration ceremonies, which would have been intolerable because you can’t have two presidents,” said Ned Foley, director of the election law program at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. “It was a very dicey situation.” 

1961: Nixon declares rival Kennedy the winner

Vice President Richard Nixon, who lost to Democrat John F. Kennedy in the presidential election months before, presided over the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021 that declared his rival Kennedy the winner.

Kennedy won the popular vote by a narrow 113,000 votes, but the Electoral College by a wider 303-219 margin. Still, the Republican Party challenged results in 11 states.

And yet the only state that had an outcome change was Hawaii – from Nixon to Kennedy. The state initially certified Nixon as the winner. But a post-election recount found Kennedy won Hawaii by 115 votes.

It meant votes from rival slates of Hawaii electors — one for Kennedy, the other for Nixon – were presented to Congress. Nixon, as the president of the Senate, counted Hawaii’s three electoral votes for Kennedy and recognized the Massachusetts Democrat as the new president.

Speaking from the House chair, Nixon noted it was the first time in 100 years that a candidate for president was forced to announce the result of an election that he lost. He said he could not think of “a more striking and eloquent example of the stability of our constitutional system.”

“In our campaigns, no matter how hard fought they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be, those who lose accept the verdict, and support those who win,” Nixon said. “It is in that spirit that I now declare that John F. Kennedy has been elected President of the United States, and Lyndon B. Johnson vice president of the United States.”

1969: VP Humphrey misses vote for Nixon

Like Nixon and later Gore, Vice President Hubert Humphrey presided over the certification of his own loss in 1969. Nixon had defeated Humphrey in the 1968 election.

But Humphrey, the Democratic vice president of Lyndon B. Johnson, did not attend the joint Congressional session. It’s the most recent time in U.S. history that the Senate speaker pro tempore, Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., had to fill in for the vice president as Congress counted electoral votes.

More: ‘Democracy prevailed’: Joe Biden passes 270-vote threshold to win Electoral College

Humphrey was instead in Oslo, Norway, attending the funeral of Trygve Lie, the first elected secretary general of the United Nations. 

If Pence were to miss the joint session, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the speaker pro tempore, would lead the meeting.

The Jan. 6, 1969 session had another distinction: Rep. James O’Hara, D-Mich., filed the first formal objection to the Electoral College count in U.S. history when he opposed one of North Carolina’s 13 electoral votes that went to segregationist George Wallace. Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, Humphrey’s running-mate, signed on. 

The vote for Wallace came from a “faithless” North Carolina elector who was pledged to vote for Nixon. O’Hara’s effort failed in both the Senate and House and the single electoral vote went to Wallace.

2001: Gore declares Bush the winner and gavels down objections

With Democrats decrying that a conservative Supreme Court robbed their candidate of a win in Florida, Gore presided over the certification of his loss against Bush in 2001.

It came less than one month after Gore, who won the popular vote over Bush by 540,000 votes, lost when recount efforts in Florida were stopped by the Supreme Court. Bush won the state by just 537 votes.

Members of the Congressional House Black Caucus spent 20 minutes objecting as they sought to block Florida’s 25 electoral votes. Each time, Gore slammed his gavel to quiet his House allies.

Any objections to votes submitted by a state’s electoral slates require support from one House member and one senator to be considered. But no senator signed on to their effort.

“The whole number of electors appointed to vote for president of the United States is 538, of which a majority is 270,” Gore said as he declared his opponent the winner. “George W. Bush, of the state of Texas, has received for president of the United States 271 votes. Al Gore, of the state of Tennessee, has received 266 votes.”

He added: “May God bless our new President and our new Vice President, and may God bless the United States of America.”

2005: Sen. Boxer signs on to House objection 

In the joint meeting of Congress to certify Bush’s win over Democrat John Kerry, Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a Democrat, received a Senate signature to object the electoral votes from Ohio.

It came from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Together, the two Democrats raised concerns about voting irregularities. Kerry said he did not support the effort.

If a senator signs onto a House objection of the electoral votes, the two chambers will meet for no more than two hours before voting on the objections. The same would happen Wednesday if Hawley, Cruz and other Republican senators object to Biden’s victory in a state.

“I hate inconveniencing my friends, but I believe it is worth a couple of hours to shine some light on these issues,” Boxer said at the joint sessions led by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Their objection lost handily, receiving just one vote in the Senate – Boxer’s – and 31 votes in the House, all from Democrats.

2017: Biden to Democrats: ‘It is over’

Four years ago, on Jan. 6, 2017, the roles were somewhat reversed from this week’s dynamics: Biden presided over Trump’s win over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Half a dozen Democratic House members raised formal objections to the Electoral College vote count, but they lacked the backing of any senators. Biden repeatedly slammed the gavel on debate, saying the objections could not be entertained.

The objections were based on Russian interference, allegations of voter suppression or what they consider to be illegal votes cast by Republican members of the Electoral College. 

U.S. Rep.& Pramila Jayapal of Washington, one of the House Democrats who objected, said, “Mr. President, even as people waited hours in Georgia…”

Biden stopped her: “There is no debate. There is no debate. If there is not one signed by a senator, the objection cannot be entertained.”

Jayapal responded: “Mr. President, the objection is signed by a member of the House, but not yet by a member of the Senate.”

“It is over,” Biden said as Republicans applauded. 

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.


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