Students, professors wait in anticipation as Inauguration Day inches closer

By Abigail Chang

The 538 members of the Electoral College will meet in December to cast their votes, which Congress will count in early January. (Emmanuel Tamrat)

When the media called the 2020 presidential race for Joe Biden on Nov. 7, many Middlebury students responded with relief — dancing outside their residence halls, blasting music or sharing excited messages on social media. 

Julia Ulsh ’24, a first-time voter, returned her absentee ballot by mail to her home county in rural Pennsylvania, the state which pushed Biden over the 270 electoral votes he needed to win the election. 

“I pretty much cried tears of joy. Not a lot, but it was such a relief,” Ulsh said.

Sophie Mueller ’23 voted by mail in Atlanta, Ga. Mueller worked for Georgia WIN List, a PAC that supports Democratic women in the state. Though she “gave herself a little bit to just celebrate [and] be happy,” she quickly switched her focus to the two January senate run-offs in Georgia, which will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. 

Although many in the U.S. are celebrating Biden’s victory and world leaders have congratulated the former Vice President, President Donald Trump has yet to concede. In fact, the President tweeted that he had won the election on Monday morning, a claim which Twitter marked with a message reading “multiple sources called this election differently.”

The Constitution does not require that a candidate concede for the transition of power to begin, and Biden has already started to appoint members of his administration. However, the General Services Administration (GSA) had not yet issued a letter of ascertainment to Biden, which would give him greater access to resources for the transition, such as secure spaces for classified briefings. 

Bert Johnson, professor of political science, said that the GSA technically has some leeway when it comes to issuing the letter. According to the President Transition Act of 1963, the GSA must issue the letter to the “apparent successful” Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates. Johnson noted that the law does not define what “apparent successful” means, so it is somewhat up to the agency’s discretion.

“Although I don’t know what the GSA is thinking, I would imagine that once the Electoral College meets and votes, that’s definitely the apparently successful presidential candidate,” Johnson said.

Apart from Maine and Nebraska, all electors in each state are pledged to vote for the winner of the state’s popular vote. In 2016, seven “faithless” electors were successful in their attempts to go against their pledge and vote for neither of the two main candidates. Many states have laws that require electors to vote for the candidate to which they are pledged, and the Supreme Court ruled to uphold these laws in July.

“The Supreme Court was always unclear whether that binding was actually legally enforceable because, under the original Constitution, the idea was the electors would be independent actors. They wouldn’t be committed to anybody beforehand, and they would just choose the individual that they thought would make the best President,” Professor of Political Science Matt Dickinson said.

A faithless elector has only voted for the nominee of the opposing party of their pledged candidate once in U.S. history, which occurred in 1796. All of the faithless electors of the 2016 election voted for non-candidates, including Colin Powell, Bernie Sanders, John Kaisch and others. Dickinson does not believe electors will change the outcome of the election.

“If you’re worried about things that could threaten the outcome, faithless electors are way down the list. Don’t worry about that,” he said.

States must certify their slate of electors by Dec. 8, and electors will cast their ballots on Dec. 14.

Dickinson said he is paying close attention to Trump’s ongoing legal challenges to the results, the counting and recounting of votes, and the Senate race in Georgia. Neither he nor Johnson believes the Trump campaign’s lawsuits will impact the election results. 

“His lawsuits do not appear to be going anywhere,” Johnson said. “Unless he produces more evidence of fraud, they won’t go anywhere.”

While Trump has made constant claims of election fraud, there is currently no evidence that any occurred.

Johnson said he is focusing on how Biden is assembling his team and noted that the former Vice-President has already decided on a Covid-19 task force — a sign of the times.

While many Middlebury community members believe challenges to the election results are far fetched, students wondered how the President’s rhetoric might influence his followers. Many students, especially students of color, expressed concerns for their safety, and the college assembled volunteers and hired private security to patrol campus during election week.

Students also expressed concerns that — with the election called for Biden — their peers might not be motivated to continue pushing for legislative and social change.

“I think that the best way that we can make the democratic system work is to work within it, just get involved, as involved as we can,” Mueller, the student from Georgia, said. “I’d really encourage everyone to do their duties to be an active citizen, call, stand up for what they want.”