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Across all statehouses amid a pandemic, 538 electors are set to convene to cast their votes for either President-elect Joe Biden or Trump, reflecting the popular votes in their states.
Although protests are likely at some capitol buildings – and extra security is likely – the outcome should offer little suspense. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are set to end the day with 306 electoral votes, topping Trump's 232.
Historically, the Electoral College meeting is a formality given little attention. But Trump's unprecedented efforts to overturn the results have magnified every turn in the election calendar and shined a spotlight on electors.
Some Senate Republicans circled the date as the moment they would finally recognize Biden as the president-elect. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last month, "The Electoral College will determine the winner."
"This is the moment of truth, and something that is already inexorable becomes fully locked in," said Ben Wikler, a Wisconsin elector pledged for Biden and chairman of the state Democratic Party. "This year, more than ever, it's almost a sacred act to cast the official votes that have been determined by voters to choose the most powerful person in the world."
No competing slates; 'faithless electors' curbed
Trump, who hasn't been able to support his claims of widespread voter fraud with proof, has lost a barrage of lawsuits seeking to overturn the election.
He failed to convince lawmakers in states he lost such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia to certify their own separate slates of Trump electors. It means Monday will lack the drama of competing slates of electors casting votes, spoiling a dubious legal strategy pursued by the Trump team.
"We've seen pretty clear signals from state legislatures that's not going to happen," said Rebecca Green, director of William and Mary School of Law's election law program. She said such a scenario presented the biggest opportunity for "mischief on Dec. 14," adding the ingredients aren't there to "push forward any kind of fireworks."
Eliminating more suspense, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in July that states can insist members of the Electoral College support the winner of the popular vote, prohibiting rogue electors in most states. Thirty-two states don't allow "faithless" electors.
"You can expect, as a result of that ruling, a lot fewer shenanigans," Green said.
Focus of Trump, allies shifts to Jan. 6
Trump and his allies shifted their focus to Jan. 6, when a joint session of Congress will meet to count the electoral votes and certify a winner.
Expected efforts by Republican House members to contest individual state's electors were dealt a blow Tuesday when most states – having resolved election disputes – met the safe harbor deadline guaranteeing their electors are counted under federal law.
Matthew Weil, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project, said the Electoral College vote marks a “turning point” for Trump and his election challenge. Its action sets in motion the effective final act when Congress weighs certification before the inauguration Jan. 20.
“I can’t imagine anything that could change the outcome once Congress acts,” Weil said.
Who are the electors?
In last month's election, Americans voted to appoint electors pledged for Biden, the Democratic nominee, Trump, the Republican nominee, or nominees of third parties to formally vote for president. A state's population determines its number of electors.
These electors are mostly party activists – in some cases state lawmakers, Congress members or even governors – appointed by state parties this year.
Most aren't household names. Some are more well-known such as former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams; Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers; and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, all electors in New York.
Electoral College members pledged for Trump will convene in states the president won, while Biden electors will meet in states the former vice president carried, based on the certified election results in each state. Biden electors received notification to appear from governors or secretaries of states in the six states Trump contested: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.
Biden electors feel the weight of their votes
The meetings – many begin at noon or 2 p.m. – are open to the public and typically streamed live online. Most begin with the national anthem. Some states kicked off past meetings with colonial-style military bands marching in or other forms of pageantry. That's less likely to be the case during the pandemic.
Meetings usually last less than an hour, sometimes no longer than 20 minutes. Secretaries of states or other state election officials typically preside over the gatherings. In a room full of electors from the same party, there's no debate, but some electors give speeches on democracy and the historic moment.
"We're gathering at the state Capitol at noon. That's what I know," said Wendy Davis, a city commissioner from Rome, Georgia, a first-time elector for Biden. A longtime party activist in a state that hadn't voted Democrat since 1992, Davis said the 16 electors reflect a diverse coalition that turned the state blue. "It's enormous. It's such an honor. I still don't think the enormity has sunk in because we've been so busy working hard on the election."
Electors cast their votes for president and vice president on separate ballots. They then sign six vote certificates, one to be delivered to Vice President Mike Pence as president of the U.S. Senate, two to the state's secretary of state, two to the U.S. archivist and one to a federal judge in the district of the meeting.
It wouldn't be unprecedented to see protests. Trump critics gathered outside several capitol buildings in 2016 to voice their opposition to his Electoral College victory.
Amid the uproar as Trump fights the election results, some Democratic electors said they've heard from Trump supporters before the vote.
Marseille Allen, one of Michigan's 16 Democratic electors, said they each received an email from an elderly man urging them not to vote for Biden, but she said the messages didn't come off as threatening. Allen, a state probation agent from Flint, said voting in the Electoral College holds added significance for her as an African American woman.
"To be able to actually cast my vote for president when at one point this same institution didn't even consider me a full human being," Allen said, "it's an honor I will never, ever be able to put into words."
GOP electors in states Trump lost left with no options
As for electors pledged to Trump in disputed states, several contacted by USA TODAY said they have no plans to show up at their statehouses in protest or stage their own meetings.
"I have no directions whatsoever," said Stanley Grot, a Trump Michigan elector from Shelby Township, where he's the town's clerk. "Of course, anything can change between now and the 14th. At this point, I have no other plans."
Ken Carroll, a Trump elector from Georgia and plaintiff in a lawsuit that sought to halt the state from certifying the election, said Republican electors don't plan to meet Monday. He said he worries about "where our country's going," but it's "never even crossed our minds" to try to intervene with the Electoral College vote.
"You may have some groups that may show up on their own and protest it," said Carroll, a party activist from Easton, Georgia, who works in insurance. "But I think they would be more likely to protest the election itself, not the electors."
Mary Buestrin, a Trump elector from Wisconsin, said state Republican leaders told her to "keep the date open," but she heard nothing more. "Nothing has been going on that I know of." A GOP elector during past elections, Buestrin said she can't envision a chaotic scene.
"It never has been," she said, "and someone's always lost and someone's always won. It's been a very civil, very short meeting that is held."
Experts say objections unlikely to work in Congress
During the congressional meeting Jan. 6, Pence – as president of the Senate – will open the electoral certificates from each state alphabetically to count the votes. Any objections require support from one House member and one senator to be considered. The two chambers would meet separately to vote on any disputes.
More than 60 state Republican lawmakers called on Pennsylvania's congressional delegation to reject Biden's victory. Attracting applause from Trump, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said he hopes to "reject the count of particular states" such as Georgia and Pennsylvania.
Legal experts said such threats will probably amount to little more than theater.
Ned Foley, director of the election law program at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law, said that even on the "off-chance" that there was a rival submission of electoral votes, it would lack the votes to move forward. The House, controlled by Democrats, would quickly shoot down the effort, he said, and enough Republican senators would probably oppose the move as well.
"It may require a vote, there may be a little theater or drama on Jan. 6, but as a practical matter, it's not going to affect who gets inaugurated on Jan. 20," Foley said.
In 2016, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., objected to the certification of electoral votes in Georgia, but Biden – then president of the Senate – quickly killed debate with his gavel because she lacked the signature of a senator.
"It is over," Biden said as Republicans applauded.
In 2004, then-Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., signed on to a House objection to the election results in Ohio, the decisive state in President Georgia W. Bush's victory over Democrat John Kerry. The House and Senate each defeated the objection.
"I don't believe that Congress will defy the will of the people," Green said. "You can have empty rhetoric in front of a microphone at a press conference. But so far, we've seen in court that doesn't fly. And I also believe that's not going to fly in Congress for the same reason."
Senate Republicans suggested this week that they'll be ready to recognize Biden as the president-elect after the Electoral College meets Monday.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., set to vacate his seat next month, said Biden is "very likely to be the president-elect."
"And if he is, I would hope the president would put the country first, congratulate Joe Biden, take pride in his considerable accomplishments and help him off to a good start," he said.
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said he would "probably not" challenge results Jan. 6. "I don't think any one senator would probably feel comfortable doing that."
Braun said he supported efforts to vet concerns about the election, but nothing "coalesced" to overturn it. He said he'd wait until Monday's Electoral College vote to call Biden president-elect.
"I think at that point, the process has played itself out," he said.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson and Nicholas Wu
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Electoral College meeting Monday will hand Trump loss he won't accept