The Trailer: Two electoral college contests for two Americas

“We want all the validly cast votes to be counted and all the invalidly cast votes thrown out,” said Mike Heidelbaugh, before setting out with the group. “I certainly don’t want to accept the president if he was put in fraudulently.”

Pennsylvania’s electoral vote certification may have been the least eventful of any swing state’s. The Jericho March was smaller than an already small protest waged in the same spot by Hillary Clinton’s supporters, four years ago. A single Honda Civic, its driver leaning out the window with a Biden flag, circled the Capitol complex until the vote was over. The president’s challenge to the election results had driven up interest in the usually tedious electoral college process, but on paper, it was less eventful than the last one, with every single elector voting as his or her state’s voters had.

That produced two different dramas, happening in tandem, and revealing just how far the president’s supporters were going in resisting the election’s results. At most electoral colleges, there were invocations, a couple of speeches, and the signing of official paperwork. 

But at one meeting of Republican electors, the party tried to revive a legal challenge to President-elect ’s wins in four states. Outside seven of the official meetings in states that picked Democratic electors, Republican officials signed realistic-looking paperwork and insisted that the results were contested — something that even Republican-majority state legislatures rejected, rendering the moves by the self-styled alternative electors meaningless. At several swing-state meetings, electors arrived with security details after reports of possible threats; at one meeting, security stopped Republicans from charging into the room to file their own slate of electors.

This newsletter tries to avoid hyperbole, but the result of all this, happening in tandem with the distribution of the first coronavirus vaccines, was one of the strangest days in American political history. Over three time zones, spanning 18 hours, electors closed the book on the 2020 election, while Republicans worked to pry it open again. 

8:14 a.m. Eastern: White House adviser Stephen Miller appears on Fox News, where host Brian Kilmeade asks whether there is a winning legal strategy for the Trump campaign. Miller slashes back, blaming “corporate” media for manufacturing the notion of a Biden win.

“Yes, judges are caving. Yes, politicians are caving. We need heroes to step up and do the right thing,” Miller says. “As we speak, today, an alternate slate of electors is going to vote, and we’re going to send those results up to Congress. This will ensure that all of our legal options remain open.”

9:40 a.m.: Michigan’s WPHM uploads a radio interview between state Rep. Gary Eisen and morning host Paul Miller. To Miller’s seeming disbelief, Eisen insists that there will be a new effort to overturn the election, involving state legislators. “It’ll be all over the news later, he says. What we’re doing today is uncharted. But he won’t say what “what” is, and when pressed, he gaffes, saying he can’t promise that there won’t be violence. Within an hour, Republicans announce that Eisen has been stripped of his committee assignments.

10 a.m.: The electoral college process begins, with a controversy-free meeting in Vermont. Three Biden electors are sworn in. Secretary of State Jim Condos gives a short statement about the “tough year” the country has gone through. In 10 minutes they’re done. Most of the day will unfold this way, with Indiana and Tennessee voting next. By 11 a.m., the electoral count is 22 for President Trump, 3 for Biden.

12 p.m.: The Wisconsin Supreme Court rules against the Trump campaign, dismissing its lawsuit to have votes disqualified if they were cast by methods not specifically approved by the state legislature. The vote is 4 to 3, with conservative swing vote Brian Hagedorn writing for himself and three liberals, two of whom had called the lawsuit racist. 

“The [Trump c]ampaign is challenging the rule book adopted before the season began,” Hagedorn writes.

The three dissenting conservatives validate the Trump campaign’s argument, but don’t say what relief they would have granted. The very same arguments had already lost in federal court, and there are no challenges remaining before the certification in an hour. By this point, Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Mississippi, and Oklahoma have held their votes and the total is 47 for Trump, 26 for Biden.

12:10 p.m.: The electoral colleges in Georgia and Pennsylvania both get underway, and so does the Jericho March. The group circles the Harrisburg Capitol seven times, saying Hail Marys and other prayers; the electors hear an invocation, take some bureaucratic steps, give some speeches, and deliver 20 votes to Biden. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams presides over the certification of the state’s 16 electors for Biden.

12:25 p.m.: A group of Republican electors privately gathers in another part of the Georgia Capitol. The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Greg Bluestein, who spotted them, gets an explanation from Trump elector Brad Carver: “The presidential election has been contested in Georgia, so “in order to preserve our legal rights, we must elect a slate of presidential electors.”

The unofficial ceremony has no force of law, but it’s endorsed by the Georgia Republican Party, setting out a theory that will be repeated all day: The president can continue trying to overturn the election so long as there are some pieces of paper, arriving in Washington by certified mail, suggesting that some states are contested. Within the hour, Biden has 129 votes to Trump’s 126.

1:25 p.m.: The Pennsylvania Republican Party drops a surprise: Their Trump electors virtually joined Georgia’s, meeting with no fanfare, to cast a “conditional vote” for the Republican ticket. They cite the 1960 election in Hawaii as precedent, a situation in which just 115 votes separated the winner, John F. Kennedy, from Richard Nixon after a recount, and after the state had been certified for Nixon. (The initial count had put Nixon ahead.) This is a surprise to Pennsylvania Democrats, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who normally presides over the state Senate, says that this is the first he’s heard of a challenge. But at that moment, the state’s certified results are being prepared to be sent to Washington, and the national total is 154 for Biden, 152 for Trump.

2:14 p.m.: Michael McDonald, the chairman of Nevada’s Republican Party, opens an unofficial meeting of the state’s Trump electors to certify their vote. Jesse Law, a former White House liaison working for the Trump campaign, swears them in with a pledge to “support, obey, and defend the Constitution” and fulfill their roles with “fidelity.” The ceremony is streamed live by Right Side Broadcasting, which calls it a “historic” moment that could alter the course of the long-finished election.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” McDonald says. “I think you know for a fact that our president and vice president feel the same way.”

2:37 p.m.: Michigan’s Republican electors act on what Eisen had hinted at: an effort to get their votes counted. They walk up to the same Capitol entrance in Lansing that the Democratic electors earlier used, and they’re blocked at the door. A security guard informs first a Republican elector, then conservative attorney Ian Northon, that the real electors have been checked in.

“I’ve got elected officials and electors to deliver this to the Senate, today, at 2 p.m.,” Northon said, waving a manila envelope at the guard. “The electors by statute — it’s statute MCL 168.47 — have to be at the Senate chamber, today, at 2 p.m. They’re trying.”

The electors make no additional effort to enter, but some stick around to talk to the media. Inside the building, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state’s other top Democratic officials watch as the vote is certified. Outside, Republicans insist that they have a legitimate challenge, and some cite a fringe group’s study of voting machines in a red Michigan county, Antrim, that had accidentally reported a batch of votes for Biden, then undone the error. 

The study had been released that morning, at the end of a legal challenge to the county’s votes; it was refuted instantly by Democratic and Republican election officials, who noted that the author previously mixed up Michigan and Minnesota precincts in an analysis that purported to prove that turnout had been higher than the number of registered voters. But by the afternoon, Republicans in Michigan and elsewhere are talking up a report that alleges machine error built into the voting software designed to create error.

2:41 p.m.: Wisconsin GOP Chairman Andrew Hitt says in a statement that “Republican electors met today in accordance with statutory guidelines to preserve our role in the electoral process with the final outcome still pending in the courts.” With no advance notice, they had gathered somewhere else in the Capitol complex while Biden’s electors were meeting in their official capacity.

Republicans in five states have now presented phony elector slates, and are joined soon by Arizona. More states have certified their votes, including Colorado, one of the states where “faithless electors” had denied their 2016 votes to Hillary Clinton. Nobody votes faithlessly this time. The count is 185 for Biden, 174 for Trump.

3:50 p.m.: Texas’s 38 electors meet at the state Capitol in Austin, and quickly assign their votes to Trump and Vice President Pence. Then they stick around. Most, but not all of them, believe that they can pass along resolutions to Congress with their electoral votes. Mark Ramsey, representing the 10th Congressional District, hands out copies of a resolution shaming the Supreme Court for not taking up Texas’s lawsuit against Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It’s adapted, he says, from language passed by the state Republican executive committee. 

“Whereas, the members of the presidential electoral college from Texas condemn the moral cowardice of the United States Supreme Court, in failing to accept the original jurisdiction of a suit by one state against another,” Ramsey says, “Be it resolved that the members of the presidential electoral college from Texas call on the state legislatures of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Michigan, to convene and appoint their electors in accordance with the true constitutional vote of the people, or if undeterminable, by appointing their electors directly.”

A debate begins, but not over whether to pass the resolution. Some electors worry that the term “moral cowardice” is too harsh, while some argue that it can’t be watered down. Mark Patrick, representing the 32nd Congressional District, shares a story about an unnamed Supreme Court clerk overhearing Chief Justice John Roberts shout down Justices Samuel A. Alito and Clarence Thomas, telling the two conservatives that the threat of “riots” is a reason to kill the Texas case. The story makes no sense — the justices have not met in person since March — but Patrick says he saw it recounted online, and “moral cowardice” was a good way to describe it.

“I wish I could give you a specific citation for this, but I didn’t make a note of it, because it was something that I read this morning,” he explains.

But another elector warns that the language would alienate the justices and hurt Trump’s legal odds, so 28 electors vote to kill it. Minutes later, 34 of them vote in favor of the resolution, and to send copies to the justices, the president and every member of Congress.

4:09 p.m.: Arizona Republicans announce that they, too, brought electors together to cast uncountable votes for Trump. At the same time, the state’s slim Republican legislative majority is signing off on an audit of Dominion voting machines, and within an hour, a rump group of 30 current or incoming legislators sign a letter urging Congress not to accept any electoral result from the state. By the end of the hour the electoral college count is 247 for Biden and 232 for Trump. 

5:28 p.m.: California’s Democratic elector slate certifies its vote, then breaks into cheers, having technically nudged Biden past the 270 votes needed to win the presidency, and native daughter Kamala D. Harris to the vice presidency.

“We’ve made all of those who stand so firm on this Constitution very proud, because we have ensured the will of the people will be done,” says state Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who’s presiding over the meeting. The national count is 302 votes for Biden, 232 for Trump.

6:07 p.m.: Hours after New Mexico’s five electoral votes go to Biden, the state’s Republican Party announces that its five electors met to vote for Trump. The state backed Biden by 11 points, but not long before this, the Trump campaign had filed a lawsuit arguing that New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver violated state law by allowing drop-boxes for mail voters, without getting the state legislature to approve each one. The statement copies the “Hawaii precedent” language from Arizona, word for word.

7:30 p.m.: , who is frequently late for planned remarks, is right on time for his speech on the electoral college vote, which would conclude at 306 for him to 232 for Trump. He does what his campaign avoided for the past few weeks, methodically criticizing the president’s lawsuits and separating him from the Republicans who acknowledged the results. He also looks ahead to the Jan. 6 congressional acceptance of the electors’ vote, which got more momentum as the hope to overturn the Dec. 14 result disappeared; some Republicans had stopped calling the electoral college the final arbiter, whipping votes for a challenge in the House and Senate.

“Four years ago, as the sitting vice president of the United States, it was my responsibility to announce the tally of the electoral college votes that elected Donald Trump. I did my job,” Biden says. “And I am pleased — but not surprised — that a number of my former Republican colleagues in the Senate have acknowledged the results of the electoral college.”

As Biden leaves the stage, a Fox News reporter shouts out a question: When did he first learn that there was a Department of Justice probe into his son Hunter?

“Thanks for the congratulations,” says Biden. “I appreciate it.”

8:48 p.m.: Republican senators who’d been reluctant to call the election “over” are starting to break. In statements and in comments to reporters, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri say for the first time each that Trump lost the election. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, one of the first Republicans to congratulate Biden, repeats his call for Trump to concede. 

Getting there is not so easy for the Republicans more enmeshed in conservative media. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas had climbed out on a limb that may never have been attached to a tree; he’d said that he’d argue two different pro-Trump lawsuits at the Supreme Court, hours before each was dismissed. On a tele-town hall with Texans, he says for the first time that the election may be over. 

“It is very, very uphill right now,” Cruz says. Clearly, if something significant doesn’t change, then Biden and Kamala Harris are on a path to being the next president and vice president. I hope something significant changes.

12:21 a.m.: The president, who’d been largely quiet about the vote count, begins to tweet that it was conducted unfairly. Like Michigan’s Republicans, he focuses on the Antrim study, the one rejected by the state’s election officials hours earlier.

“Changed the results of a landslide election,” Trump writes. “Can’t let this happen.”

Reading list

Another report on what happened across the states.

Are state-certified vote totals real? An investigation.

The busy first day of Georgia’s runoff vote.

The decisions and trends that sunk an Omaha Democrat even while Biden was winning her district.

Maryland’s Republican governor builds his national profile.

A comprehensive look at the powers the GOP won last month to draw new districts.

In the states

Early voting in Georgia began on Monday morning with an estimated 169,000 voters joining the 314,000 or so who had already cast mail ballots. That’s more in-person votes than were cast on the first day of early voting for the general election; it’s close to one-quarter of the total, final vote from the last Senate runoff in the state 12 years ago.

And it’s occurring in conditions that have changed only slightly since Nov. 3. Yesterday, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced that he’d act on a demand made for weeks by “stop the steal” protests — he would audit the signatures on past absentee ballot envelopes. But rather than auditing all of them, his office would focus on a sample from Cobb County, the old stronghold of suburban Republicans that moved hard toward Democrats.

That doesn’t affect the race for Senate. Neither did the certification of Georgia’s electors on Monday, which neither Sen. David Perdue nor Sen. Kelly Loeffler recognized as a confirmation of Biden’s victory.

“I will never stop fighting for [Donald Trump] because he has never stopped fighting for us,” Loeffler tweeted on Tuesday morning.

There’s not much evidence, beyond anecdotes, that this intra-Republican argument is hurting turnout. Raffensperger, who has traded shots with the senators ever since they demanded his resignation last month, whacked them again for demanding information on new registered voters to which their campaigns already had access.

“Though I’ve told the Republican Party to stop focusing on me and instead direct their energies to winning the Senate runoffs, clearly they haven’t listened,” Raffensperger said in a statement. “Early voting has already started but it’s not too late for them to call their offices and get their campaigns in order.”

The intra-Republican arguments about Georgia have largely been about rules that Republicans opposed either before the Nov. 3 election, or after. The top concerns: The state’s consent decree limiting how signature-matching can disqualify mail ballots, the ability of Republican observers to watch the vote and the count, and the use of Dominion machines, which despite their paper trails have spawned numerous lawsuits and baseless “fraud” theories.

None of that is changing while this vote takes place. But Republicans have been mobilizing to prevent more changes that they think could help Democrats. Ahead of an election meeting in Forsyth County, one of the GOP’s last real redoubts near Atlanta, the Republican National Committee and the local GOP urged supporters to show up and, in the local party’s phrase, stop “the Democrats’ scheme of expanded hours or additional locations.” It worked. Democrats wanted to allow early voting to last until 7 p.m., and create a Saturday early vote, something adopted in the neighboring counties of Cherokee and Henry. Republicans showed up in force, and the changes didn’t happen.

Meanwhile Biden, during his speech Tuesday in Atlanta for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, the Democratic opponents of Perdue and Loeffler, respectively, repeatedly invoked the GOP’s challenges to the vote count as a reason for Democrats to get back to the polls.

“I think all of you just taught Donald Trump a lesson,” Biden said. “Georgia certainly wasn’t going to stand by and let Donald Trump or the state of Texas or anyone else come in here and toss out your votes.”

On the trail

Former campaign co-chair Nina Turner made it official: She was running for the 11th Congressional District of Ohio, as soon as current Rep. Marcia Fudge left it to become secretary of Housing and Human Development.

“The pandemic has taken the lives of hundreds of people in our community and a disproportionate number have been Black and elderly,” Turner said in a Wednesday afternoon Zoom call. “We are facing economic challenges where too many of our families and neighborhoods are struggling for the most basic necessities of life, of food, of shelter, medical care, and where too many small businesses are on the brink of closing down or have closed. If the voters send me to Congress, I will carry a determined message that says we do not have to accept this.”

That comment came in the second of Turner’s two announcements: One that broke the news to Ohio reporters, and one for a national audience, where the questions came from potential supporters. (The first questioner asked how Turner’s supporters across the country should help her.) Turner, who had been a rising Democratic star in Cleveland until losing a 2014 secretary of state race, rolled out her priorities, from expanding health care to pursuing criminal justice restructuring. But interestingly, after five years as a Sanders ally with plenty of criticism for the Democratic Party, she emphasized how much she’d done to build it.

“I was the vice chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, serving as the chair of party engagement,” Turner said. “I was twice elected as a delegate for President Barack Obama to the Democratic National Convention, and I was proud to work as hard as I could, my husband and I zipping up and down this state. And we elected him not once, but twice.”

Nowhere to be found: the criticism Turner had made of the Obama-era Democratic Party, and of Biden. She doesn’t have the field to herself, and other Democrats have already resurrected a comment she gave the Atlantic this summer, when she compared the choice between Trump and Biden as eating the entirety, or only half, of a bowl of human excrement. Jeff Johnson, a longtime Cleveland-area legislator who has run and lost other bids for the seat, told BuzzFeed’s Henry J. Gomez that the seat would need someone who could work well with the new Democratic administration.

“A lot of folks want to know, when we go to Washington, who we will stand with,” Johnson said. “I will stand with Biden-Harris. There will be no question about that.”

But Turner, unlike Johnson, has a national following. She was introduced on Tuesday by a mixture of Ohio political allies, plus actor Danny Glover, a fellow Sanders surrogate; she reminded the audience that Sanders and Atlanta-based rapper Killer Mike had been supporting her candidacy even before she made it.

“Brother Killer Mike was right there for me,” Turner said. “Many of you may have gotten the opportunity to see him and Senator talk about this race, my campaign, and what this will mean to the community.” She immediately turned back to the less-famous voters of Cleveland and Akron: “So many other leaders in this community, and everyday people, understand that representation is exactly what we need.”

“She is truly a champion of economic, racial, social and environmental justice,” Sanders said in a statement to The Trailer. “I am proud to endorse her candidacy.”

Countdown

… 21 days until runoffs in Georgia 
… 22 days until a joint session of Congress to certify the presidential election
… 36 days until the inauguration

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