Today at noon, the next stage of the 2020 election is set to take place.
Twenty individuals from every corner of Pennsylvania will gather in Harrisburg to cast their votes for president of the United States, on behalf of the 3,458,229 voters who cast their vote for President-Elect Joe Biden.
They are the commonwealth’s presidential electors, appointed by the winning campaign to fulfill the duties laid out in Article II Section 1 of the Constitution, as well as the Twelfth Amendment, and codified in federal law.
And just as COVID-19 changed so many traditions this year, the meeting of Pennsylvania’s Electoral College is no different. Instead of convening at the Capitol in the chamber of the state House of Representatives for an ornate ceremony filled with pomp and circumstance, this year’s gathering will take place in the Forum Auditorium, across from the Harrisburg Capitol Complex.
The 1,600-occupancy auditorium, which is the venue for the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, will allow those attending in-person to practice social distancing, according to a Department of State letter sent to the House of Representatives detailing why the ceremony was moved. The hour-plus long ceremony will be dramatically shortened to limit electors’ time in the venue, a spokesperson for the Department of State said.
The ceremony itself will look very different. Four years ago, a carefully choreographed gathering occurred, with speeches by Gov. Tom Wolf, then-Commonwealth Secretary Pedro Cortes, and the two Trump electors selected to lead the college — Robert Gleason of Cambria County and Joyce Haas of Centre County.
This year, the gathering will be smaller. Gov. Wolf, in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, won’t be in attendance, nor will there be a large audience. Only the absolutely necessary people will be there -- including Kathy Boockvar, the current Commonwealth Secretary, the state’s 20 electors, staff “essential” to the ceremony and five members of the press. All attendees will be required to wear a mask, distance, and participate in temperature checks and health screenings prior to the event.
“It’s probably going to be as bare bones a ceremony as possible, making sure we fulfilled our legal obligation,” said Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat from Philadelphia and presidential elector.
There will be no guests, no reception and speeches have been cut short to limit the time the group is gathered to avoid spreading COVID-19.
And that’s a shame, according to Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist, who has attended five electoral college ceremonies, including for former presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
“It’s unlike anything that occurs throughout the four-year cycle,” Gerow said. “I’ll miss being up there on Monday, because the significance historically isn’t lost on me.”
In 2016, Gerow served as a “teller,” tasked with counting the electors’ votes.
During that ceremony, Gerow noticed an error: “President” was misspelled on one of the official transcription documents that are read when Congress receives the states’ votes in January. The Pennsylvania ceremony was put on pause so someone could run upstairs and print a new copy.
“It really is a vitally important day, and it’s done in relative obscurity,” Gerow said. “Political junkies pay attention to it, but my brother who makes pizzas for a living probably doesn’t. But nevertheless, it’s when the president is truly elected.”
Wanda Murren, spokesperson for Commonwealth Secretary Kathy Boockvar, said Pennsylvania’s ceremony is envied by many, “because we do it right, with lots of pomp and circumstance – and all that history.” She added, “It is in Pennsylvania where everyone wants to get footage for their EC broadcasts; Pennsylvania where the soundbites project solemnity and the gravitas of democracy.”
Gerow, who this year authored a legal brief on behalf of Republicans from the General Assembly supporting a legal case to invalidate Pennsylvania’s mail-in votes, said he’ll be watching the ceremony on Pennsylvania’s public cable network.
Still, he wishes he would be in the House chambers, celebrating President Donald Trump’s second term.
“There’s nothing I would like more than to be sitting with 20 Republican electors on Monday morning,” he said.
Who are Pennsylvania’s electors?
One is Janet Diaz, the Lancaster city councilmember. The others, like her, are a mix of current and former politicians and Democratic Party insiders. The list includes Chester County Commissioner Marion Moskowitz, as well as state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
The other Biden-Harris electors are:
Nina Ahmad, Philadelphia, former candidate for state auditor general
Val Arkoosh, Montgomery County Board of Commissioners chair
Cindy Bass, Philadelphia City Councilmember
Rick Bloomingdale, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania AFL-CIO president
Ryan Boyer, Delaware County, Laborers District Council of the Metropolitan Area of Philadelphia and Vicinity business manager
Paige Gebhardt Cognetti, Scranton mayor
Daisy Cruz, Philadelphia, 32BJ SEIU Mid-Atlantic District leader
Kathy Dahlkemper, Erie County executive
Virginia McGregor, Lackawanna County, Democratic National Committee deputy national finance chair
Charles Hadley, Philadelphia, former candidate for state House
Jordan Harris, Philadelphia, state representative
Malcolm Kenyatta, Philadelphia, state representative
Gerald Lawrence, Delaware County Board of Elections chair
Clifford Levine, Allegheny County, attorney
Nancy Mills, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania Democratic Party chair
Sharif Street, Philadelphia, state senator
Connie Williams, Delaware County, former state senator
This will be Street’s first electoral college ceremony, although his father, former Philadelphia Mayor John Street, was an elector for former Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Under other circumstances, he said he might have felt cheated on the experience since it was shrunk so much due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But he sees himself as one of the people to end the Trump administration, which he said is “very satisfying.
“I’m humbled and appreciative of the opportunity to be an elector and have the opportunity to symbolically cast the vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” he added. “The people have already granted Joe Biden the 20 electoral votes. We are just symbolically passing that vote along as part of the peaceful transition of power, but Joe Biden is already entitled to those votes.”
Several electors declined to comment until after the ceremony or did not respond to requests for interviews.
The Trump campaign did not appoint anyone from Lancaster County to serve as an elector in 2020. Some Trump electors from nearby areas included Marcela Diaz-Myers of Dauphin County, the PA GOP Hispanic Advisory Council chair; and Lisa Patton of Cumberland County, the Trump campaign’s Pennsylvania events director.
Are there security concerns about Monday’s ceremony?
For the second presidential election in a row, the traditionally perfunctory exercise is beset by fears of violence and widespread doubt that the Electoral College winner belongs in the White House.
Even the electors don’t know where they’ll be casting their ballots Monday, Street said. They’ll find out Monday and be escorted by Capitol police to the location.
“Although we are not aware of any specific threats, the Electoral College is a significant event and the Pennsylvania State Police is coordinating with its law enforcement partners, including Capitol Police and Harrisburg Police, to ensure a peaceful proceeding,” State Police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said.
“We and our security partners are closely monitoring for threats and are taking steps to safeguard the Electoral College participants and process,” Murren said.
Both Harrisburg and Capitol police declined to comment.
The reasons to withhold the location are twofold, according to Street: The Department of State wants to protect the electors from any chance of physical threats or harassment, and wants to avoid people gathering outside the ceremony and spread the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We don’t want a superspreader event,” Street added. “It would be a bunch of people who have been misled by Trump and [Trump’s attorney Rudy] Giuliani that somehow the election has been stolen from them. Many of those people truly believe, they think they’re defending democracy and it is because Trump is delusional and spreads false information.”
The state will stream the vote online, and will allow a limited number of journalists to witness the event in person, Murren said.
In addition to the pandemic, attacks on the democratic process by President Trump and elected Republicans appear to have duped many Trump supporters into thinking the election is being stolen. Some of Trump’s most ardent supporters have warned of bloodshed if either the courts or state legislators don’t overturn the results.
“Violence is a last result, but if this election stands it will be literally the only remaining option for having any influence at all on anything the government does,” one posted recently on a pro-Trump message board.
Four years ago, fears about the vote’s security grew from Democratic partisans asking electors for then-President-elect Trump to ignore the winner of their state and cast their ballots for the national popular vote winner, Hillary Clinton. State Police that year reportedly assigned a plainclothes officer to each elector.
Tarkowski wouldn’t say whether they’re doing the same this year.
“The PSP Executive Services Office assigns a protective detail to the Governor and Lieutenant Governor,” he wrote in response to a reporter’s questions. “If deemed necessary, additional PSP resources may be deployed strategically (and sometimes in concert with state and local partners) to ensure the safety and security of other members of the Governor’s cabinet.”
What happens next?
When casting their votes, the presidential electors sign documents listing their individual votes for president and vice-president. Six versions of each document must be signed, with one to be delivered to the President of the U.S. Senate, one to the Archivist of the United States.
When Street casts his vote, he said he will be thinking of it as a “return to sanity and return to compassion for the people of the United States.”
“Hopefully it’s another step for us performing the rituals for a peaceful transition of power,” Street added. “But the election is over.”
The U.S. Congress meets in joint session on Jan. 6 to hear electoral vote results from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Vice President Mike Pence, in his constitutional role as president of the Senate, presides over the ceremony.
Can Congress challenge the votes?
A federal law -- 3 U.S. Code, Chapter 1, Section 15 -- establishes how a state’s electoral votes can be challenged during the joint session. It says that one House member and one senator both must file an objection. In that case, the joint electoral college session adjourns, and the members of each chamber meet separately to debate the objection. Only if both chambers vote to affirm the objection is a state’s electoral votes set aside. Given that Democrats maintain a narrow majority in the House, it is unlikely that any objection would be successful.
Congress, once the electoral votes are counted, then affirms the winner -- Joe Biden -- as president-elect. He and his runningmate, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, are sworn into office two weeks later, at noon on Jan. 20 in an outdoor ceremony on the west side of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
What about President Trump’s efforts to overturn the results?
President Trump has alleged that voter fraud robbed him of victories in a number of battleground states, including Pennsylvania. Lawsuits filed by his campaign and allies, in both state and federal courts, have so far failed to reverse the outcome in any state.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently weighing whether it should hold a hearing on a lawsuit filed by the state of Texas against Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin. That suit alleges that the four states broke their own laws by expanding mail-in voting for the election. Texas’ claim is backed by 17 other states, but it is not likely to succeed, as elections are managed by each state separately, and the court is believed to be hesitant to establish a precedent under which any state could sue any other over the conduct of elections.
Numerous Republican officials in Pennsylvania have signed legal briefs in support of the Texas lawsuit, including Bryan Cutler, the Peach Bottom Republican who serves as Speaker of the state House of Representatives. Separately, more than two-dozen Republican legislators, hoping the court rules for Texas, are circulating a proposed “joint resolution to exercise the General Assembly’s plenary power to appoint electors of President and Vice President of the United States.”
Interestingly, Lancaster County’s two state senators -- Ryan Aument and Scott Martin -- signed a brief with many of their GOP colleagues that expresses no opinion about the Texas suit. Instead, it asks the court to affirm that Pennsylvania’s election code can only be changed by an act passed by the legislature. This issue is important, they say, because they believe Gov. Wolf and Secretary Boockvar exceeded their authority when they extended the deadline for mail-in ballots to arrive at county elections offices and made other procedural changes related to mail-in ballots.
State Rep. Jordan Harris, another elector from Philadelphia, said he views this year’s ceremony as exciting and concerning.
It’s exciting, he said, because he’ll cast a vote for Kamala Harris, the nation’s first woman and first African American vice president. But it’s concerning because of the “political theater” put on by Trump and his supporters. He noted that his GOP colleagues in the legislature are supported the legal challenges to Pennsylvania’s results, as well as the protests planned for Monday outside the Capitol.
“All of the electors have our mailboxes full of messages from people telling us to do our job and overturn the election and all these other things,” Harris said. “But I think our job is to ensure that the will of the people is heard. And in my view, that will is to give Pennsylvania’s electoral votes to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”
Additional reporting by Mike Wereschagin of The Caucus.