File photo: Joe Biden and US President Donald Trump Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: The US elections are usually smooth affairs – the people come out to vote, the ballots are counted and a winner is declared. The process then begins for a smooth transfer of power leading to the new president being sworn in on January 20.

This time it has been different. Since the day the ballots were counted, there have been accusations of fraud. Over the past 220 years since a defeated John Adams handed over the White House to his rival in a peaceful transfer of power, there has not been so much debate over the polls.

Wednesday's congressional joint session to count electoral votes has taken on added importance this year as Republicans allied with President Donald Trump are pledging to try and undo Democrat Joe Biden's victory. Biden won 306 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 232.

Newly elected Republican House members
Newly elected Republican House members meet on the East Front of the US Capitol for a group photo on January 04. A large number of Republican members of Congress are planning to object to the electoral college results that will be formalized on January 6.

Here’s a look at what is likely to happen at the joint session of Congress on Wednesday:

What is the problem?

President Donald Trump’s party members, the Republicans - a dozen senators and more House members – have said they will officially object to the election results citing the charges the president has often levelled of widespread fraud. On Wednesday, the Congressional joint session will meet to count electoral votes. The objecting Republicans say they will force a vote in the Republican-led Senate and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

A range of election officials and the former attorney general William Barr have confirmed that there was no prevalence of widespread fraud in the election. Credible evidence on this count has also not been presented.

What does the court say?

Nearly all the legal challenges put forth by Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges. The Supreme Court, which includes three Trump-nominated justices, has also denied requests to hear a pair of cases aimed at invalidating the outcome of the election in key battleground states.

US Supreme Court
The US Supreme Court building in Washington.

What happens when Congress meets on Wednesday?

Throughout November and December, states certified their results. Then the Electoral College voted on Dec. 14 based on those results and made Biden the winner. States sent their Electoral College vote totals to the new Congress to be counted and confirmed. This counting will happen Wednesday.

The congressional meeting on Jan. 6 is the final step in reaffirming Biden's win. The meeting is required by the Constitution and includes several distinct steps.

Under federal law, Congress will open sealed certificates from each state that contain a record of their electoral votes. The votes are brought into the chamber in special mahogany boxes used for the occasion.

Bipartisan representatives of both chambers read the results out loud and do an official count. The president of the Senate, Vice-President Mike Pence, presides over the session and declares the winner. The session begins at 1pm (10pm UAE time)

What does the constitution require?

The Constitution requires Congress to meet and count the electoral votes. If there is a tie, then the House decides the presidency, with each congressional delegation having one vote. That hasn't happened since the 1800s, and Biden's electoral win over Trump was decisive, 306-232.

How does the session unfold?

The two chambers meet together midday to count the votes . If the vice-president cannot preside, there is precedent for the Senate pro-tempore, or the longest-serving senator in the majority party, to lead the session. That's currently Sen. Chuck Grassley.

The presiding officer opens and presents the certificates of the electoral votes in alphabetical order of the states. The appointed "tellers" from the House and Senate, members of both parties, then read each certificate out loud and record and count the votes. At the end, the presiding officer announces who has won the majority votes for both president and vice-president.

White House
A stage is set up on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, in preparation for a rally on January 6, the day when Congress is scheduled to meet to formally finalize the presidential election results.

What if there is an objection?

After a teller reads the certificate from a state, any member can stand up and object to that state's vote on any grounds. But the presiding officer will not hear the objection unless it is in writing and signed by both a member of the House and a member of the Senate.

If there is such a request, then the joint session suspends and the House and Senate go into separate sessions to consider it. For the objection to be sustained, both chambers must agree to it by a simple majority vote. If they do not both agree, the original electoral votes are counted with no changes.

The last time such an objection was considered was 2005, when Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, both Democrats, objected to Ohio's electoral votes, claiming there were voting irregularities. Both the House and Senate debated the objection and easily rejected it. It was only the second time such a vote had occurred.

Who is expected to object?

Dozens of House Republicans and a smaller group of GOP senators are expected to object to the count from some swing states where Trump has alleged fraud. None of the members have presented detailed evidence and none of them objected to the swearing-in of congressional lawmakers who won election on the same ballots.

In the Senate, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley was the first to say he would join with the House Republicans. On Saturday, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas announced a coalition of 11 additional senators who vowed to vote against unspecified state electors on Wednesday unless Congress appoints an electoral commission to immediately conduct an audit of the election results. Hawley and Cruz are both among potential 2024 presidential contenders.

The challenges have split the party.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has urged his colleagues not to object, saying last month on a private call that the vote would be “terrible.”

Several other Senate Republicans have criticised the effort as well, including Texas Sen. John Cornyn and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican. On Sunday, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse said the challenge is "bad for the country and bad for the party."

What is the role of Pence?
Pence's role is largely ceremonial and he has no power to affect the outcome, despite Trump's wishes to the contrary.

The role of the vice-president as presiding officer is often an awkward one, as it will be for Pence, who will be charged with announcing Biden's victory - and his own defeat - once the electoral votes are counted.

Pence won't be the first vice-president put in an uncomfortable situation. In 2001, Vice-President Al Gore presided over the counting of the 2000 presidential election he narrowly lost to Republican George W. Bush. Gore had to gavel several Democrats' objections out of order. In 2017, Biden presided over the count that declared Trump the winner. Biden also shot down objections from House Democrats that did not have any Senate support.
190216 Mike Pence 2
US Vice-President Mike Pence

How long will the process take?

Trump lost about six swing states, and they're spread throughout the alphabet - Arizona to Wisconsin. Republicans who question the election results have indicated that they will try to challenge all of them. Each time there's a challenge supported by at least one member of each chamber, Congress has to split off and vote on it. Then they come back together and keep counting states. Voting will also take longer than normal because of coronavirus precautions to space lawmakers apart from one another.

What is a normally quick and easy process could get dragged into the wee hours.

Once the count is over, what happens next?
The joint session is the last official chance for objections, beyond court cases that have so far proven ineffective for Trump and his team.

- With inputs from AP