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Ask Civics 101: What Role Does Congress Play In The Electoral College?

Sara Plourde/NHPR

Today we're answering a listener question about Congress and each state's electoral votes: what role does Congress play in the Electoral College?

Read on or listen to this short episode for the answer.  

Do you have a question for the Civics 101 team? Submit it here!

The Constitution requires Congress to meet and count the electoral votes on Jan. 6. It's the final step in an election process for president that began in early November with citizens casting ballots, continued with election officials counting (and in some cases, recounting) ballots through November, and carried into December with the Electoral College meeting to cast their votes. What happens on Jan. 6? And can an election result be changed? 

Normally, the congressional certification of Electoral College results is a bit of mundane housekeeping. But every so often it's a chance for last-minute political theater.

On Jan. 6, after a presidential election, the Senate packs up their Lunchables and takes a field trip to the House for a joint session of Congress.

The Vice President officiates and silently reads each state’s (and the District of Columbia’s) certificate of ascertainment, the official count of Electoral College votes. The certificates are then handed off to predetermined “tellers” who read them out loud to the joint session of Congress.

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If a lawmaker has an objection to a certificate, it can be entertained if it meets three criteria:

  1. It has to be in writing
  2. It has to be signed by member of the House of Representatives
  3. It has to be signed by a member of the Senate.

If the objection meets these requirements, the two bodies retire to their respective chambers and, for up to two hours, discuss the objection. Each lawmaker can speak for up to five minutes.
Then they vote on whether to proceed with the objection in the joint session. 

The effort is all but certain to fail. Rarely do both the House and the Senate agree with an objection to a state’s Electoral College votes. 

In the end, the Vice President announces the official tally of electoral votes and the election is over. 

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Jacqui Fulton is, in her own words, "podcast and public radio’s biggest fan.” She even built a recording studio in her closet.

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