As I understand it, a presidential candidate needs to secure 270 electoral votes to have a majority and thereby officially win the election. As I also understand it, when the joint session of Congress is presented with the electoral votes, they go through each state in alphabetical order, and either certify or object to the allocation of those electoral votes. It is certainly possible, and indeed happened yesterday, that one candidate reaches the 270 vote threshold before all the states were completed. At that point, it would of course be impossible for another candidate to amass 270 votes even if all the remaining states' votes were successfully objected to.

Why, then, do they need to continue through the rest of the states? Why can't they just declare the next president as soon as one candidate reaches the 270 vote threshold? It seems like a waste of time, especially if representatives can still object to states' votes after one candidate has already secured enough votes to win (as indeed happened yesterday when a member of the House of Representatives objected to the votes from Wisconsin).

Is this a mere formality, or is there actually an official rule that a president cannot be declared unless all of the states have been certified?

The relevant sentence in the Constitution (Amendment XII) states:

The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and the House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted.

Is it that a very literal reading of this means that the president of the senate must open every single certificate before any of them are counted? And if so, what does this rule serve to accomplish?

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    Mathematically, all the votes are treated as being cast simultaneously. There is no one "winning" vote that can be singled out as the one that gives one candidate a majority, and technically, one has to count the votes in the first place to know what defines a majority.
    – chepner
    Jan 8, 2021 at 18:44
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    (Also, stopping early would imply that some state's votes are less important than others.)
    – chepner
    Jan 8, 2021 at 19:55
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    @EricDuminil I meant to throw the word "symbolically" in my second comment, as the general trends within many states are so predictable.
    – chepner
    Jan 9, 2021 at 13:54
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    @EricDumnil If 85 people vote A and 75 people vote B, A happens, but that doesn't mean 75 people's votes weren't counted or weren't worth anything. They just weren't enough. Jan 9, 2021 at 13:55
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    @Shadur: Your comparison is valid for basketball games or direct elections, but not for tennis games or indirect elections. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton had more than enough votes, but still lost the elections. De facto, some of those votes were worth nothing. Jan 9, 2021 at 15:39

4 Answers 4


One of the reasons why all votes are counted is that the votes still have to be recorded in the Journals of both Houses of Congress. The Vice President "opens the envelopes" for the votes to be then counted. From 3 U.S. Code § 15:

all the certificates and papers purporting to be certificates of the electoral votes, which certificates and papers shall be opened, presented, and acted upon in the alphabetical order of the States, beginning with the letter A; and said tellers, having then read the same in the presence and hearing of the two Houses, shall make a list of the votes as they shall appear from the said certificates; and the votes having been ascertained and counted according to the rules in this subchapter provided, the result of the same shall be delivered to the President of the Senate, who shall thereupon announce the state of the vote, which announcement shall be deemed a sufficient declaration of the persons, if any, elected President and Vice President of the United States, and, together with a list of the votes, be entered on the Journals of the two Houses.

(emphasis mine)

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    Regarding your first paragraph, I see how the threshold could be less than 270, but could it ever be more (barring a fundamental change to the apportionment of electors which I don’t think could happen between an election and Congress certifying it)?
    – Alex
    Jan 8, 2021 at 3:44
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    @Alex That is correct. To summarise: the whole counting process is essentially a formality and, most importantly, for the votes to be officially recorded.
    – Panda
    Jan 8, 2021 at 3:46
  • Citation needed regarding the number 270 is not fixed and it's only possible to determine the number that constitutes a majority of electors if all electoral votes are counted. If the electoral votes from subsequent states were to be rejected, that number would drop. That is not what I have read. Jan 8, 2021 at 12:05
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    @DavidHammen I've looked this up in more detail and it appears there has not been consensus on what a "majority" constitutes since it was handled differently in past contested elections but never affected the results. From this CRS Report, "The 12th Amendment requires the winning candidate to receive “a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed.” That number normally becomes the same as a majority of the number of electoral votes counted by the tellers." So, I'll update my answer to remove that. Thanks for pointing out!
    – Panda
    Jan 8, 2021 at 12:29

The counting of electoral votes in Congress is a ceremonial institution, like so many other things in political and social life. There's no practical reason why Presidents, Congresspeople, and other elected officials have to swear oaths to the constitution; there's no practical reason why clergy don't just say to a bride and groom "Yeah, yeah, you're married, go away"; there's no practical reason why we have graduation ceremonies and signing ceremonies and award ceremonies; no necessary function to funeral services or rites of passage or days of fasting. And yes, the world would be a whole lot more 'efficient' without any of these things that we consistently waste our time and effort on.

But 'efficiency' is not the measure of humankind...

We have such ceremonial institutions so that we can come together as a community and validate our culture, our ideals, our beliefs, and our way of life. When Congress acknowledges and certifies the electors of each state (just like when a minister goes through that weird ritual of orchestrating vows and asking for final objections; just like when college seniors dress up in goofy robes and wait in long lines to get a piece of paper that could have been mailed to them) we are all affirming that the act in question matters: that every state matters, that every citizen matters, that our system of government is right, true, honorable, and authoritative.

This ceremony certifies, affirms, and reaffirms that we matter as a people. That is not something to give short shrift to...

If you've paid attention to the news for the last couple of days, you've heard the terms 'sacred' and 'sacrilege' tossed about fairly freely. The offense here wasn't against Congresspeople: threats against Congresspeople are frightening, and might have risen to tragic if any of them were hurt, but they aren't sacrilege. The sacrilege was that this group of rioters assaulted the integrity of our culture, disrupted the ceremony by which we affirm our culture, and effectively tried to burn down the ideological house of American society. And yes, these people have been shouting out a fairly sour, jaded, nihilistic view of American political culture for a few years now, in public and private — that is a ceremony of American political culture in its own right, so ok — but this time they overstepped, trying to disrupt and discredit a ceremonial institution as it was being invoked. They might as well have stormed a church during services screaming "God is a damned, dead delusion"; they might as well have rushed the podium during graduation, burned the diplomas, and told the graduates to get out and go get a frigging job. A system where Congress got to 270 and said "Yeah, yeah, etc., whatever..." would have the same ruinous effect on our culture (if in a much more quietly jaded and cynical way).

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    "effectively tried to burn down the ideological house of American society" Too hyperbolic. The protesters damaged extremely little, definitely burned nothing, and their motivations as stated were that the election itself was not a fair election. That's a far cry from "rushed the podium during graduation and burned the diplomas". The rest of the post is good, but the last half-paragraph veers wildly out of touch. Move the last sentence up, and most of that paragraph trimmed.
    – Knetic
    Jan 8, 2021 at 23:38
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    @knetic Ted didn't say anyone committed arson or lit actual fires. It's an extremely obvious metaphor, and an apt one. They decided that since they didn't like the election outcome, they'd break into congress and attempt to change the outcome by intimidation. The election is the institution which they metaphorically burned down. That's exactly what they did, exactly what Trump told them to do, and nobody is fooled by claims that it was just a peaceful protest.
    – barbecue
    Jan 9, 2021 at 0:08
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    @knetic if you believe they "damaged extremely little" then you consider our institutions and international reputations unimportant.
    – barbecue
    Jan 9, 2021 at 0:10
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    @Knetic: I wrote this answer, not barbecue (though I agree with his comments). And I really think you should examine the events a bit more closely. A large number of people smashing through Capital doors and windows while chanting 'Hang Pence' is a bit more severe than lighting a bunch of diplomas on fire, and that's not even accounting for the clearly seditious effort to overturn a US election through mob action. But the point you seem to have missed is that it's the attack on our political culture that matters more than the mob violence. Please reread what I wrote. Jan 9, 2021 at 7:02
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    Re: political culture and recent events. It's important to remember that democracy only works because the losers agree to the outcome. Rejecting that means choosing to drop a symbolic fight and choose the real thing, with all its inherent poverty and suffering and death.
    – Jason
    Jan 9, 2021 at 12:27

Why, then, do they need to continue through the rest of the states?

I'll try to bring this to a more personal level.

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Suppose someone named Zachary Zzyzx works or volunteers for an organization that votes on various proposals, with the votes submitted in writing. The votes are later made public but only become official when the votes are read out in alphabetic order. If the counting stopped when a clear majority was reached, why would Mr. Zzyzx ever bother to vote?

If the counting of the Electoral College in the Joint Session of Congress on the sixth of January results stopped when a clear majority (270 votes) is reached, why would Wyoming ever bother to hold a Presidential election? Stopping when a clear majority is reached would essentially disenfranchise people who happen to live in states that happen to be near the end of the alphabetical order list of states.

When Ronald Reagan won by a landslide in 1980, the electors representing West Virginia wanted their votes counted for the opposition, while the electors representing Wisconsin and Wyoming wanted their votes counted as a part of that landslide. When Barack Obama Won by an electoral landslide in 2008, the electors representing West Virginia and Wyoming wanted their votes counted for the opposition, while the electors representing Wisconsin wanted their votes counted as a part of that landslide.

If the counting was stopped once a clear majority was reached, the vote from Wyoming would only have been counted once in the 130 years since Wyoming was made a state.

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    The votes of later states aren’t always irrelevant. If the race is close, it could come all the way down to Wyoming’s three votes, so there would still be a reason for all states to vote. But if there was no point in voting, that wouldn’t change based on whether Congress officially counted them or not. Everyone knows that they would make no difference in the result either way. Also, if the issue is just that people “feel bad” when their votes aren’t officially counted, maybe they could alternate the order of counting so that it’s not always Wyoming that’s left out?
    – Alex
    Jan 8, 2021 at 12:45
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    @Alex The vote has come down to Wyoming's three votes exactly once, in 2001, where the Electoral Count was 271 to 266. That the reading of the votes is alphabetical is set in the 1877 Electoral Count Act. Changing that would require an act of Congress. (Good luck.) Jan 8, 2021 at 13:06
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    It's interesting that by the time you get to Wyoming, there are usually two options: either their electoral votes make no difference whatsoever, or their electoral votes literally decide the election. Over time, the level of "enfrancisement" seems like it would even out - Alabama would always have some small contribution to the election result, while Wyoming would typically have no contribution but would rarely be the deciding factor. Jan 8, 2021 at 16:18
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    @Alex They may not be legally relevant but they are certainly politically relevant. If you stop counting votes, the affected people might stop voting, and that could mean a future candidate who would win an election by carrying those peoples' votes (and state) would no longer win the election. On top of that, politically being able to say you won with 300+ votes vs only 270 votes has a big difference. When you have a political mandate from the masses you wield more influence in Washington and politicians put up less resistance to your efforts.
    – TylerH
    Jan 8, 2021 at 16:35
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    The order doesn't matter. Regardless of the order, the condition for Wyoming's 3 votes to affect the result is that the other 49 states' votes' majority is 3 or less. If that happens, Wyoming's 3 are crucial; if not, not. That condition's truth or falsity is not affected by the order the votes are counted in. The same is true of Alaska's 3 votes. The respective voting powers of Wyoming and Alaska might depend on other political factors, but not on the order in which Eletoral College votes are counted.
    – Rosie F
    Jan 9, 2021 at 11:03

Counting all the votes means listening to the public. It's basic politeness and respect.

It also provides interesting and significant data. I wouldn't be content to know a candidate won without knowing how much they won by.

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    This. The margin of victory has political implications, even if it lacks legal force. Recording that officially has value. Jan 8, 2021 at 20:43
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    I suppose it would be like ending a race as soon as the first person crossed the finish line. Or as soon as there was only one person left in the race.
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 8, 2021 at 20:46
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    @DKNguyen: It's the literal translation of the French word, which in turn is based on a wedding tradition in one of the cycling crazy regions of France. Traditionally, it is actually a wagon (well, a van or a bus) with brooms mounted on the side instead of a sign :-D Jan 9, 2021 at 0:11
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    The problem I have with "knowing how much they won by" is that we knew this 2 months ago: Biden won by 4.54% of the relevant vote (ignoring those not for him or Trump). The electoral margin is a childish inflation of how people voted.
    – Jerry B
    Jan 9, 2021 at 10:49
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    @JerryB, are you counting the margin in the popular vote over all states? You already know it has no legal weight, whether you like it that way or not.
    – ilkkachu
    Jan 9, 2021 at 13:46

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