A group of Pennsylvania’s Republican state lawmakers — including, notably, state House leaders — are urging Congress to take an extreme, last-ditch, and likely ineffective step to overturn President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory.
On Friday, more than 60 GOP House members and seven GOP senators sent a letter to every member of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, asking them to “object, and vote to sustain such objection, to the Electoral College votes received from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
They’re referencing a little-used election law: the 1887 Electoral Count Act.
The first step of any national election certification, after states have certified their results, is the casting of votes by electors. This year, Biden has 306 electors — 20 of which are from Pa. — and Trump has 232. Each will officially vote on Dec. 14.
This is routine, as is the next step: after electors vote, congress has to certify the results. That happens in a special session on Jan. 6, and it is there that Pennsylvania Republicans hope congressional representatives will lodge a final objection.
The Electoral Count Act was adopted after Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes both declared they’d won three states in the 1870s. It gives congress the opportunity to weigh in on a contested result, but the language of the act is so opaque and riddled with questions that onlookers have called for the current Congress to clarify. As written, if the two chambers of congress disagree about a dispute, it may fall to the contested state’s governor, or a different state executive, to approve or overturn the slate of electors.
It’s a concept that has already been raised among certain Trump-sympathetic congressional representatives, and it is considered an extreme long shot. Though the provision has been invoked a few times in the past, it has never changed the results of an election.
It’s notable, however, that the letter Pennsylvania lawmakers sent to their congressional delegation has backing from the two highest-ranking House Republicans: Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) and Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre).
While some rank-and-file senators signed the letter, incoming President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) and incoming Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) did not.
Initially, Republicans issued a version of their letter to congress that incorrectly included the names of several moderate members from the Philadelphia suburbs who had, in fact, not supported the effort. At least one Republican who wanted to sign the letter was accidentally excluded.
Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for Benninghoff, said it was a “clerical error.”
Cutler has previously made it clear that he does not think the legislature has any path to contest election results on the state level. In a post on his official Facebook page this week, he wrote that it would be “physically impossible to pass a joint resolution” contesting Pennsylvania’s electors. After outcry from constituents, he followed up, writing that the legislature will “pursue every legal and constitutional path to ensure the integrity of the election.”
A spokesman for Cutler didn’t return a request for comment. But Gottesman said Republican leaders view the letter as simply taking every advantage of processes allowed under law.
“We have concerns about the process,” he said. “I think there are grounds for members of our congressional delegation to dispute them.”
Some of those concerns are about guidance that Pa. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat appointed by Gov. Wolf, gave to counties ahead of the election. She urged county officials to check mail ballots — without opening or counting them — for obvious problems, like incomplete dates, and to contact voters when possible so they could fix them ahead of the election.
Republicans also raised concerns about ballots with problems like misplaced or illegible signatures and dates being counted, and not immediately thrown out, and have claimed poll watchers weren’t granted enough access to watch the counting process.
State Republicans and the Trump campaign have also raised those concerns in court, and have been almost universally dismissed. A few cases are still pending, but are unlikely to affect Pennsylvania’s result.
The group also sent a letter to Attorney General Josh Shapiro asking him to review “election irregularities,” and sent one to Inspector General Lucas Miller urging a “review of the Department of State’s internal policies and procedures.”
Democrats universally dismissed Republicans’ latest appeals to congress as destined to fail.
Bill Patton, a spokesman for outgoing House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny), said the “desperation on display is sad to see.”
“The election result is settled and the clear majority of Pennsylvanians chose Joe Biden,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) had a similar reaction. He was pleased, he said, to see that Senate leaders like Corman and Ward didn’t sign the letter — and dismayed that House leaders did.
“I think it’s a fruitless effort,” he said. “It’s just more noise to distract people from what we really should be talking about, and that is how we deal with the COVID-19 situation … it’s just frustrating and disturbing.”
He noted, he and other Democrats didn’t take actions like these in 2016, when they were unhappy that Pennsylvania had flipped narrowly for Trump.
“We just didn’t engage in these types of activities,” he said. “We understood what occurred, we accepted the outcome, and we moved on.”
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