U.S. vice presidents, in their constitutional role as president of the Senate, have long presided over the ceremonial certification of the electoral college vote count, even when it has meant turning the reins over to the opposition (see: Richard B. Cheney, Jan. 8, 2009; Joseph R. Biden Jr., Jan. 6, 2017).
In fact, two modern vice presidents have overseen the most humbling of certifications — their own election losses.
On Jan. 6, 1961, Vice President Richard M. Nixon became the first in a century. Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy had beaten him narrowly; plus, many Republicans suspected voter fraud in 11 states, even filing lawsuits in two. (Judges threw both out.) So even though the result of the certification was supposed to be a foregone conclusion, some wondered whether Nixon would really go through with it.
He did, and according to The Washington Post’s coverage at the time, he did so jovially.
“Nixon seemed to enjoy doing it,” The Post wrote. “Time and again he pumped humor, life and even a little political sense into the nearly two-centuries-old ceremonial.”
During the joint session, he asked to make a statement, promising to follow House custom of a one-minute speech, instead of the Senate’s unlimited-time rule.
“I do not think we could have a more striking and eloquent example of the stability of our Constitutional system and of the proud tradition of the American people of developing, respecting and honoring institutions of self-government,” he said. “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.”
He declared Kennedy the winner and received a standing ovation.
The awkward moment was handled well, but Post correspondent Robert C. Albright’s description of the electoral college system that created the situation was unsparing. Perhaps expecting it might be reformed soon, Albright called it “creaky,” “archaic,” “tired,” “no longer dependable” and “America’s outworn way of electing its presidents.”
The Senate majority leader, he reported, “was confident that one day the electoral college will retire as gracefully as Mr. Nixon did.”
Thirteen years later, Nixon retired again — this time, in disgrace. And the “creaky” old electoral system remains.
Four decades later, the country found itself in an even bigger electoral drama, when Vice President Al Gore had to certify Tex. Gov. George W. Bush’s win, despite Gore’s having won the popular vote. The month before, Gore had conceded to Bush after a court battle over the Florida count that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Like Nixon in 1960, Gore tried to bring “grace and humor” to the proceedings, according to The Post’s coverage at the time. As scripted, the roll of states was called in alphabetical order, and when it reached California, which Gore won, he jokingly pumped a fist in the air.
He had “achieved celebrity status,” according to The Post’s coverage, signing autographs for the assembled lawmakers, congressional staffers and pages. Even Speaker J. Dennis Hastert asked Gore to autograph the wooden gavel he used that day. Like Nixon, when he declared Bush the winner — asking God to bless his opponent — Gore drew a standing ovation.
There was an extra awkward cherry on top of the day, though, when the roll reached the state of Florida and a handful of House Democrats raised objections. Most of them, including Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.) were members of the Congressional Black Caucus “who share the feeling among black leaders that votes in the largely African American precincts overwhelmingly carried by Gore were not counted because of faulty voting machines, illicit challenges to black voters and other factors,” The Post said.
Because no senators signed on to the objections with the House members, Gore was bound by law to refuse to hear the objections, putting him in the position of squelching a last-ditch effort to make him president.
This Jan. 6, things are expected to proceed differently, and not just because Trump has thus far declined the take the “grace and humor” route. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has signed on to House Republican objections, meaning that even if Pence acts according to the script, the objections will be heard.
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