WASHINGTON — Members of the Electoral College, some surrounded by armed guards because of death threats, formally affirmed Joe Biden the president elect on Monday, discarding weeks of baseless allegations and futile legal challenges by President Trump and his allies to try to overturn the results of the November election.
The vote, mandated by the Constitution, marks the official victory of Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the 2020 election after all 50 states and the District of Columbia had certified their results.
The Democrats’ 306-232 defeat of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence was the second-to-last step in the Electoral College process, and all but eliminated any chances of derailing Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
“Once the states have concluded their electoral counts, the election is officially decided,” said Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications who served on Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.
Biden addressed the nation Monday night, striking what have become his familiar calls for unity and healing after a divisive election and its contentious aftermath.
“If anyone didn’t know it before, we know it now. What beats deep in the hearts of the American people is this: democracy,” Biden said from Wilmington, Del. “The flame of democracy was lit in this nation a long time ago. And we now know nothing — not even a pandemic — or an abuse of power — can extinguish that flame.”
He issued a forceful rebuke of Trump’s attempts to block the Democrats’ victory. Trump and his allies, he said, made arguments to state legislatures, officials, and even the US Supreme Court, “and in every case no cause or evidence was found to reverse or question or dispute the results.”
The Electoral College vote is a ritual that normally takes place in state capitals around the country with little attention or drama. But this year’s votes took place with restrictions in the midst of a pandemic that now has killed more than 300,000 Americans and as Trump has refused to concede defeat, leading to death threats against some Biden electors in battleground states.
Electors are state and local elected officials, party activists, and average people, with one slate per candidate in each state. In Massachusetts, that 11-member body on the Democratic side included former Springfield mayor Robert Markel, a friend of Biden since they were freshmen at their Catholic high school in Delaware.
The electors for the candidate that wins a state’s popular vote gather on a date set by law to cast their ballots. As Monday’s vote neared, Democratic electors, Biden campaign officials, and state parties worked to ensure a safe and smooth voting process amid weeks of chaos fueled by the president and his allies. Trump added to the disarray late Monday afternoon by announcing Attorney General William Barr, who has said the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the election, was resigning effective Dec. 23.
In Nevada, where Trump and Republicans have spread false claims of voter fraud, six electors cast their votes for Biden and Harris via a Zoom meeting. In New York, former president Bill Clinton and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton were the first of 29 electors to drop their paper ballots into wooden boxes at the state capitol. They and others sat spaced and separated by plexiglass dividers in the Assembly chamber.
But most of the attention focused on Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, states that Biden flipped and where Trump and his allies have continued to contest the results despite any evidence of widespread election malfeasance.
In Pennsylvania, 20 stoic electors in suits donned deep purple masks with the golden state insignia and sat socially distanced in an ornate auditorium near the Capitol. They placed their ballots into a box designed by Benjamin Franklin. State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, who was a Biden elector, said that despite all the attacks from Trump, the process went off without a hitch, which he called “a major victory for democracy.”
“At the end of the day, the process worked and the will of the voters of Pennsylvania were respected,” he told the Globe. “This was a wonderful day, and it was made possible by voters who ignored the noise and made their voices heard.”
Electors in Michigan and Wisconsin reportedly faced death threats. The tensions appeared to be most heated in Lansing, Mich., where state officials have been on high alert since demonstrators with assault rifles packed into the Capitol this spring in protest of Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic-driven stay-at-home orders. Months later, federal law enforcement officers thwarted what they described as a plan to storm the building, kidnap Whitmer, and “ignite civil war.”
On Monday, the Capitol and legislative buildings in Lansing were shut down amid “credible threats of violence,” and state Republican legislative leaders pulled a GOP state representative from his committee assignments after the lawmaker went on a morning radio show and suggested that he and others were planning some sort of event against the Electoral College vote. He told the host that he could not rule out the potential for violence.
Despite the commotion, Whitmer was resolved and optimistic when she addressed her state’s electors in the Senate chamber Monday. She lauded Michiganders for a record-breaking turnout in the November election and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and other election officials for tirelessly working to safeguard the process.
“It was a safe, fair, and secure election,” Whitmer said to applause. “It was the kind of election our Founding Fathers envisioned.”
But Trump advisor Stephen Miller on Monday said that the president is not giving up in his challenge of the election results, even after twice being rebuffed by the Supreme Court last week.
“The only date in the Constitution is January 20th so we have more than enough time to right the wrong of this fraudulent election result and certify Donald Trump as the winner of the election,” Miller told Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.” He said the campaign had selected alternate slates of electors in the contested states even though there is no provision for that in the process.
The next step is for House and Senate lawmakers to count the Electoral College votes sent by each state. The lawmakers will meet in a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, two days after the new Congress is sworn in. As prescribed by law, Pence will oversee the counting of certificates of votes sent by each state’s electors.
There is one last chance to change the results: a state’s Electoral College tally can be challenged if at least one member from the House and the Senate object. But the objection must be approved by a majority of the House and Senate to have that state’s results discarded, something unlikely given Democrats still will have the House majority.
“It’s almost impossible to conceive that a Democratic majority House would overturn results, but it’s almost as impossible to imagine that at least a small number of Republicans wouldn’t join Senate Democrats to overrule the challenge,” Schnur said.
There have only been two such objections since the law establishing the procedures was enacted in 1877 and neither were approved by Congress.
But Trump’s continued rhetorical attacks on the electoral process could have lingering effects, sow distrust, and make it harder for Biden to govern, scholars and historians said. A CBS poll released this week found that majorities of voters believe the election is “over and settled,” that their votes were counted correctly, and that Biden is the “legitimate winner.” But 82 percent of Trump voters say they do not see Biden as legitimate and nearly half believe Trump should not concede.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at University of California Riverside, called the poll numbers “very concerning” and a recipe for political instability. But the past few weeks have laid bare “the anachronism of the Electoral College,” he added, and could serve as a lesson on the role states have to play in ensuring fair elections and voting rights.
“We have known for a long time that the president is not popularly elected, but the level of discretion of states was surprising to a lot of people,” said Ramakrishnan, author of the book “Citizenship Reimagined.” “What it means moving forward is that you are going to see attempts at state level reform to try to prevent a constitutional crisis from reappearing in the future.”