Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri is among those leading the charge to challenge states' electoral slates on Jan. 6.
Stefani Reynolds—Getty Images
January 5, 2021 10:54 AM EST

Both chambers of Congress will gather Wednesday to count the states’ electoral votes and officially declare Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

In normal times, the event is defined by pomp and circumstance, a formality mandated by the Constitution. But this year, President Trump has refused to concede, turning the ceremony into a loyalty test and effectively daring Republicans to defy him by acknowledging Biden’s legitimate victory. In a sign of Trump’s continuing grip on the party, many are heeding his call by announcing they will object to Biden’s win. Dozens of Congressional Republicans are using the joint session as a final attempt to undermine that most hallowed tradition of American democracy: the peaceful transition of power.

The ploy almost certainly won’t reverse the outcome of the race. Biden will still be sworn in as the next President of the United States on January 20. But Trump’s reckless attempts to sow chaos—and Republicans’ willingness to abet it—have forced a reckoning within his party and revealed the vulnerability of Americans’ centuries-old democratic traditions.

“Lending credence to Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen is a highly destructive attack on our constitutional government. It is the opposite of conservative; it is radical,” former GOP Senator John Danforth of Missouri said in a statement. In an indication of the widening split Trump’s loss has created within the party, Danforth’s old seat is now occupied by Sen. Josh Hawley, who is leading the charge to challenge the results.

Most of the Republicans who plan to challenge the outcome have said their intention is to air allegations of rampant voter fraud. But those claims are not supported by evidence. Trump’s own Administration deemed the election the most secure in U.S. history. And since Election Day, Trump’s legal team has lost nearly all of its challenges to election results in court, with judges widely rejecting their allegations.

Here is how the joint session will likely unfold on Wednesday, and why challenging the results is damaging to democracy even if it won’t succeed.

How does the process work?

Both chambers of Congress will convene in the Capitol at 1 p.m. Eastern on Jan. 6. In his capacity as President of the Senate, Vice President Mike Pence is expected to preside over the session.

Once lawmakers have convened, Pence will begin opening the envelopes that contain each state’s slate of electors, which have been certified for either Biden or Trump. The envelopes will be opened in alphabetical order by state. The electors are allocated based on the popular vote in each state. Pence will hand the envelopes to tellers, who will count the the votes before Pence declares the victor in each state. Once Biden has amassed the requisite 270 electoral votes, Pence will officially declare him the winner.

Throughout this process, lawmakers of both parties have an opportunity to object to electoral slates. Objections must be in writing and must come from at least one lawmaker in each chamber. Nearly a dozen Republican Senators have said they will object to the slates, as have many Republican members of the House. Once a written objection has been submitted, the chambers will gather separately for up to two hours of debate per state.

When that time is exhausted, the objections will be subject to a majority vote in each chamber, where they will almost certainly fail. Democrats control the House of Representatives. And while control of the Senate is still up in the air pending the Georgia runoff elections, enough Republican Senators have said they will vote to certify the results to ensure there is majority support for certifying Biden’s win there, too. Still, raising these objections will give lawmakers—particularly those who are eyeing presidential runs and want to placate Trump’s devoted voters—an opportunity to prove their fealty by echoing his unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud.

Can Pence affect the outcome?

While Pence has said he welcomes objections to the electoral college count, his role in the process—opening envelopes and affirming the victories—is largely ceremonial.

Last month, Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas, filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to give Pence the authority to overturn Biden’s win, but Pence successfully requested the case be dismissed, with an attorney for the Department of Justice arguing he was not the right defendant.

Which states’ votes will be challenged?

While it is unclear which states’ slates Republicans will object to, it’s widely expected that any challenges will involve the five states that Biden flipped to the Democratic column this cycle: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia.

When Hawley, the freshman Senator from Missouri, announced he would formally object to the certification, he alleged that Pennsylvania had “failed to follow their own election laws.” He failed to provide evidence of that assertion.

The group of 11 GOP Senators who subsequently announced they would challenge the outcome said they want an emergency 10-day audit of results in what they deem “disputed states.” (They did not specify what states fall into that category.)

Why are these challenges problematic if they’re doomed to fail?

Election officials and politicians on both sides of the aisle argue that the GOP’s attempt to undermine the will of the voters subverts democratic norms and is antithetical to the country’s ideals. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan said the objections “strike at the foundation of our republic.” House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney sent a 21-page memo to her colleagues alleging they they set a “dangerous precedent” that undercut core conservative principles. Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska said his colleagues are allowing their political ambitions to supersede the values they pledged to represent.

Thomas Donohue, the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed several of the lawmakers leading these challenges during their campaigns, said their efforts now “undermine our democracy and the rule of law and will only result in further division across our nation.”

Election officials have been among the most outspoken. “I can attest as a Secretary of State that across the country there were not irregularities that should cause concern or alarm or doubt in the election results anywhere,” Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, said in a Jan. 4 phone call with reporters. “This confidence has been affirmed by the courts multiple times.”

Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com.

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