Congress' count of Electoral College votes could be most contentious in 144 years. Here are past dramatic moments
WASHINGTON – Marking a dramatic conclusion to a bitter election, Vice President Mike Pence is set to preside Wednesday over a special joint session of Congress that will cement President-elect Joe Biden's election win – and a loss for President Donald Trump and himself.
The scene sets the stage for perhaps the most contentious electoral vote count in 144 years after Trump worked two months to overturn Biden's Nov. 3 election victory.
The usually perfunctory joint sessions have had past moments of tension. Vice President Al Gore oversaw his presidential election loss against George W. Bush after a fiercely fought recount battle in Florida decided by the Supreme Court.
Audiotape: Trump is heard on recording pressuring Georgia secretary of state to 'find' votes
As Trump encourages protests Wednesday in Washington – and Republicans in Congress oppose certification – this year's session could be the most divisive since the election of 1876.
Further heightening the tensions is an audiotape obtained by The Washington Post in which Trump pressures Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "find" enough votes to reverse his loss to Biden in Georgia.
At Wednesday's joint session of Congress, Pence, serving in his capacity as president of the Senate, will be tasked with opening the electoral certificates from each state alphabetically to count the votes. At the session's conclusion, Pence, like Gore 20 years ago, is supposed to announce the winner.
Biden defeated Trump 306-232 in the Electoral College vote Dec. 14, but procedural fireworks are expected throughout. A faction of House Republicans, led by Mo Brooks, R-Ala., intends to object to electoral votes from some states. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and 10 other senators said they will sign on to the objections.
More: A dozen Republican senators plan to object to certification of Biden's election win over Trump
The effort lacks the votes in the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-led Senate. Although it wouldn't be the first time a president-elect's electoral votes were contested by members of the opposing party – it happened in 2001, 2005 and 2017, each led by Democrats – none of these instances had the level of Republican resistance expected Wednesday.
Here are some of the past dramatic and controversial moments in Congress' counting of Electoral College votes:
1877: Hayes-Tilden dispute comes close to constitutional crisis
The election of 1876, won by Republican Rutherford B. Hayes over Democrat Samuel Tilden, remains the most fiercely contested in U.S. history – even after the 2000 election and last November's election.
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The two parties in Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana and Oregon both claimed victories and submitted electoral votes from rival slates of electors, presenting a constitutional crisis before Congress.
A fight also ensued over the electoral votes of Vermont, won by Hayes but contested by Tilden.
Congress established a bipartisan electoral commission to reach a solution. Through the Compromise of 1877, Hayes emerged the winner after he appeased Southern Democrats by agreeing to pull federal troops out of the South and ushering in the end of Reconstruction.
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Hayes won Vermont, Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana, leading him to a 185-184 electoral win, the narrowest in U.S. history.
"We came within two days of having simultaneous inauguration ceremonies, which would have been intolerable because you can't have two presidents," said Ned Foley, director of the election law program at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. "It was a very dicey situation."
1961: Nixon declares rival Kennedy the winner
Vice President Richard Nixon, who lost to Democrat John F. Kennedy in the presidential election months before, presided over the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 1961, that declared his rival Kennedy the winner.
Kennedy won the popular vote by a narrow 113,000 votes and the Electoral College by a wider 303-219. The Republican Party challenged results in 11 states.
The only state that had an outcome change was Hawaii – from Nixon to Kennedy. The state initially certified Nixon as the winner, but a post-election recount found Kennedy won Hawaii by 115 votes.
It meant votes from rival slates of Hawaii electors – one for Kennedy, the other for Nixon – were presented to Congress. Nixon, as president of the Senate, counted Hawaii's three electoral votes for Kennedy and recognized the Massachusetts Democrat as the new president.
Speaking from the House chair, Nixon noted it was the first time in 100 years that a candidate for president was forced to announce the result of an election that he lost. He said he could not think of "a more striking and eloquent example of the stability of our constitutional system."
"In our campaigns, no matter how hard fought they may be, no matter how close the election may turn out to be, those who lose accept the verdict and support those who win," Nixon said. "It is in that spirit that I now declare that John F. Kennedy has been elected President of the United States, and Lyndon B. Johnson vice president of the United States."
1969: VP Humphrey misses vote for Nixon
Like Nixon and Gore, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was in line to preside over the certification of his own loss in 1969. Nixon defeated Humphrey in the election in 1968.
But Humphrey, the Democratic vice president of Lyndon B. Johnson, did not attend the joint congressional session. It's the most recent time in U.S. history that the Senate speaker pro tempore, Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., had to fill in for the vice president as Congress counted electoral votes.
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Humphrey was in Oslo, Norway, attending the funeral of Trygve Lie, the first elected secretary-general of the United Nations.
If Pence were to miss the joint session, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the speaker pro tempore, would lead the meeting.
The session on Jan. 6, 1969, had another distinction: Rep. James O'Hara, D-Mich., filed the first formal objection to the Electoral College count in U.S. history when he opposed one of North Carolina's 13 electoral votes that went to segregationist George Wallace. Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, Humphrey's running-mate, signed on.
The vote for Wallace came from a "faithless" North Carolina elector who was pledged to vote for Nixon. O'Hara's effort failed in the Senate and House, and the single electoral vote went to Wallace.
2001: Gore declares Bush the winner and gavels down objections
As Democrats decried that a conservative Supreme Court robbed their candidate of a win in Florida, Gore presided over the certification of his loss against Bush in 2001.
It came less than one month after Gore, who won the popular vote over Bush by 540,000 votes, lost when the Supreme Court stopped recount efforts in Florida. Bush won the state by 537 votes.
Members of the Congressional House Black Caucus spent 20 minutes objecting as they sought to block Florida's 25 electoral votes. Each time, Gore slammed his gavel to quiet his House allies.
Any objections to votes submitted by a state's electoral slates require support from one House member and one senator to be considered. No senator signed on to their effort.
"The whole number of electors appointed to vote for president of the United States is 538, of which a majority is 270," Gore said as he declared his opponent the winner. "George W. Bush, of the state of Texas, has received for president of the United States 271 votes. Al Gore, of the state of Tennessee, has received 266 votes."
He added, "May God bless our new president and our new vice president, and may God bless the United States of America."
2005: Sen. Boxer signs on to House objection
In the joint meeting of Congress to certify Bush's win over Democrat John Kerry, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, received a Senate signature to object to the electoral votes from Ohio.
It came from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. The two Democrats raised concerns about voting irregularities. Kerry said he did not support the effort.
If a senator signs onto a House objection of the electoral votes, the two chambers will meet for no more than two hours before voting on the objections. The same would happen Wednesday if Hawley, Cruz and other Republican senators object to Biden's victory in a state.
"I hate inconveniencing my friends, but I believe it is worth a couple of hours to shine some light on these issues," Boxer said at the joint sessions led by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Their objection lost handily, receiving just one vote in the Senate – Boxer's – and 31 votes in the House, all from Democrats.
2017: Biden to Democrats: 'It is over'
Four years ago, on Jan. 6, 2017, the roles were somewhat reversed from this week's dynamics: Biden presided over Trump's win over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Half a dozen Democratic House members raised formal objections to the Electoral College vote count, but they lacked the backing of any senators. Biden repeatedly slammed the gavel on debate, saying the objections could not be entertained.
The objections were based on Russian election interference, allegations of voter suppression or what Democrats considered to be illegal votes cast by Republican members of the Electoral College.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said, "Mr. President, even as people waited hours in Georgia..."
Biden stopped her: "There is no debate. There is no debate. If there is not one signed by a senator, the objection cannot be entertained."
Jayapal responded: "Mr. President, the objection is signed by a member of the House but not yet by a member of the Senate."
"It is over," Biden said as Republicans applauded.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Congress' count of Biden's Electoral College win may be most divisive