Congress Did Not Finish Certifying the Election Results. What Happens Next?

WASHINGTON — The storming of the United States Capitol on Wednesday stalled the counting of electoral votes by Congress to confirm President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory, prolonging the process but not preventing Mr. Biden from becoming president.

Legal scholars were struck by what they described as a shocking assault on the Democratic process, in which protesters descended on the Capitol, resulting in some electoral ballots being whisked to safety.

But they said the delay was unlikely to derail the process of formalizing Mr. Biden’s victory, even if the violence disrupts activity on Capitol Hill for several days. In fact, the proceeding, which was enshrined in the Electoral Count Act of 1887, had safeguards in place to address delays.

Trevor Potter, a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said that because of anticipated objections by members of Congress to some of the votes, the process was already expected to bleed into Thursday. In fact, Congress has five days from when the counting started — Wednesday — before the pace must pick up.

If the count is not complete by Monday, Congress can no longer take breaks or recess until the electoral votes are certified.

“It was designed so someone could not slow-walk this to prevent the conclusion of the Electoral College process,” Mr. Potter said.

Still, there is only one real deadline when it comes to the transfer of presidential power: Jan. 20.

If the electoral votes are not certified by then, things would become more complicated. President Trump would not get to stay in office. At noon on Inauguration Day, the term of the sitting president and vice president ends.

The job of president would temporarily go to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, given the Presidential Succession Act, which dictates that the speaker of the House is third in line to the presidency in the absence of a president and vice president. She would hold the job until Congress finished certifying the votes.

The delays are not expected to reach that point. A Senate aide said that lawmakers hoped to reconvene Wednesday night to finish their work and that Senators Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, and Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader, were in agreement on that. Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, said on Twitter that he also wanted to continue certifying the votes.

Ms. Pelosi said that the joint session of Congress would proceed Wednesday night once the Capitol was cleared for use. “We always knew this responsibility would take us into the night,” she said. “The night may still be long but we are hopeful for a shorter agenda, but our purpose will be accomplished.”

Matthew A. Seligman, a special counsel for election integrity at the Campaign Legal Center, noted the irony of the current crisis, given the Electoral Count Act was created to prevent a contested election from roiling more strife.

“This is an unprecedented assault on the rule of law,” Mr. Seligman said. “The entire point of the Electoral Count Act was to allow a process in Congress to decide these sorts of disputes.”

In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, ultimately defeated his Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden, despiting garnering a smaller share of the popular vote. Contesting the results, three swing states in the South still occupied by Union troops — Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida — sent competing slates of electors to Washington for Congress to consider. Ultimately the dispute was resolved through an arduous process and Mr. Hayes was victorious but tainted, paving the way for Electoral Count Act a decade later.

“What we saw today did not happen even in 1876, in the immediate shadow of the Civil War — that shows how serious this is,” Mr. Seligman said.

During the chaos on Wednesday, quick-thinking Senate aides did manage to take an important measure to keep a crucial part of the certification process intact.

Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, shared an image on Twitter of ornate boxes of Electoral College ballots that had been rescued from the floor for safe- keeping. If they had been damaged, Congress would have needed to obtain duplicates to resume its work.

“If our capable floor staff hadn’t grabbed them, they would have been burned by the mob,” Mr. Merkley said.

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