The mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol, spurred on by President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud, broke norms but not American democracy.
The mob interrupted the U.S. Senate’s certification of Electoral College votes, the last formal step before President-elect Joe Biden can take office on Jan. 20.
But the Senate and House of Representatives returned to session and defeated objections to the electoral votes in both Arizona and Pennsylvania. Some senators who had been expected to sign on to additional objections changed their minds following the violence and refused to go along with further evidence to prevent certification of the election.
After law enforcement cleared the Capitol, the Senate reconvened to continue debate. Late Wednesday night, senators voted overwhelmingly to certify the Electoral College votes. Neither of North Carolina’s U.S. senators, Republicans Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, voted in support of the objections to certification, though five members of the state’s House delegation did support the objections.
With a more prolonged debate on the issue, especially in regard to Pennsylvania, the House also defeated the objections in both states. Some 138 Republican members of the House voted to uphold the objections to Pennsylvania’s electors, but all Democrats and nearly a third of House Republicans voted down the objections.
Among the Republican members of the House who spoke during the post-midnight debate in support of objecting to Pennsylvania’s electors were North Carolina Reps. Madison Cawthorn and Ted Budd.
A roll call vote in the House on the Pennsylvania electors wrapped up around 3 a.m. Thursday, allowing the House and Senate to reconvene to complete the alphabetical electoral count.
As expected, Biden defeated Trump 306-232 in the final count, with Vermont putting the former vice president over the top.
Despite the prolonged debate over the electoral votes in Arizona and Pennsylvania, Biden could have lost the combined 31 votes in those two states and still won a narrow victory.
Several additional challenges to other states were supported by U.S. House members but could not move forward without support from senators, which did not materialize.
Why does certification matter?
Certification is a step that is required by the Constitution, according to Theodore Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights at the UNC School of Law and a member of the National Task Force on Election Crises.
“Ordinarily, this would be a ceremonial event,” Shaw said.
“It would not be used to challenge the substantive effect of the election that’s already been determined through the electoral vote. But we have someone in the White House who has refused to acknowledge that he lost the election, and he’s been encouraging his supporters to continue the fight in any way possible.”
That fight came on two fronts on Wednesday afternoon. In the halls of Congress, Republican senators objected to the electoral votes from swing states that handed the presidential victory to Biden.
On the streets of D.C., Trump spoke to his gathered supporters and repeated debunked claims that there was election fraud and that he was somehow the real winner of the November election. He then told them to “walk down to the Capitol. … Because you will never take back our country with weakness.”
Could president legally prevent transition?
Trump has no legal option to retain power in the White House, Shaw said.
That was over when the Electoral College cast votes on Dec. 14, giving Biden 306 votes to Trump’s 232. Those Electoral College votes were reflective of the states that each candidate won, based on certified, and often recounted, election results in all 50 states.
“There’s simply no evidence of fraud, and yet he refuses to acknowledge that he lost,” Shaw said. “It’s shameful this president is committed to undemocratic behaviors.”
The Senate was in the middle of debating votes from Arizona’s electors when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and forced the Senate to go into recess.
What does the riot have to do with certification?
Republican objections to certifying the Electoral College results and the mob that interrupted them were not entirely unrelated, according to Marc Hetherington, a distinguished professor of political science at UNC.
“It was the rhetoric of leaders that led to this,” Hetherington said, including “Republican members of Congress fearing for their political lives who were complicit in this whole situation.”
Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri have led efforts to challenge election results, using unsupported claims of election fraud that have been found baseless in over 60 lawsuits around the country.
“These are really supersmart people,” Hetherington said. “They’re doing this for an audience. They want to be Trump’s heir, and, you know, it’s all fun and games until an insurrection breaks out in the middle of the Capitol.”
Both the debate in Congress over the legitimacy of the election results and the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol violated the country’s political norms, according to Judith Kelley, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.
When norms are violated, Kelley said, institutions need to keep democracies functioning.
How much trouble is democracy in?
“When push is really, really coming to shove, as it is right now, our democracy is holding,” Kelley said.
That’s because enough Republican senators decided not to join the objections over the Electoral College votes and all Democrats were united in certifying the results. But Wednesday’s insurrection and Trump’s undermining of trust in the election system have still weakened our democracy, Kelley said, even with the inauguration of the Biden administration on Jan. 20.
There is nothing left for Trump to do to hold onto power, she said. He can break further norms by not attending Biden’s inauguration or by refusing to leave the White House, but neither of those actions holds any legal or binding authority and will not affect the legal transfer of power.
But the faith of Republican voters in fair elections has been shaken.
“This is not something that is easily fixed when you have literally, you know, millions and millions of people … who then say they don’t trust the outcome,” Kelley said. “There’s no way that does not resonate in elections to come.”
Jordan Wilkie and Frank Taylor contributed to this article.