Monday’s Electoral College vote formalizing Joe Biden’s presidential win will be the culmination of months of orchestration by the Biden campaign to ensure minimum drama — and maximum coronavirus safety — while President Donald Trump’s flailing bid to remain in power has shaken other institutions.
Interviews with 25 Democratic electors in five states Biden flipped, as well as Biden campaign and state party officials, reveal a determination to leave as little as possible to chance — a significant change for a process that has typically been a postelection afterthought. The Electoral College process has gotten renewed scrutiny this year, as Trump has resisted his defeat and sought to delegitimize the machinery of the election.
For the Biden campaign, the process began months before the election, as his team worked to ensure that only its most loyal foot soldiers and high-profile leaders secured elector positions. It was a shift from four years earlier, when the neglected process allowed some freelancing activists to secure powerful posts and, in some cases, vote against the popular vote winner in their state.
And the Biden campaign has spent the days since Election Day making sure each of the president-elect’s electors is armed with precise logistical information, transportation and a backup plan, should anything interfere with their ability to arrive on time to cast the official votes to make Biden president — including the possibility that there could be last-minute protests or attempted disruptions from supporters of the president.
“Just like you guys know Dec. 14 is the day, all of those guys know it too,” said Tim Smith, an elector in Michigan, which has been a hotbed of pro-Trump protest activity since the election. Protesters gathered outside Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s home over the weekend (state police said they believed at least some were armed), and several electors cited the incident in interviews.
The Biden camp is confident its extensive preparation for the Electoral College process will guard against any last-minute ploys, disruption or unexpected developments from Trump. Trump continues to falsely assert that he won the 2020 election and trails Biden only because of rampant fraud and misconduct, but his legal team and allies have pointed to the Electoral College vote as a moment that could end Trump’s last-ditch efforts to remain in office.
“We have played among the most active roles in making sure the slates are comprised as we would like them to be, making sure the electors are capable and ready to do their responsibility, making sure that people are prepared to be where they need to be on that date,” said a Biden campaign official involved in the Electoral College logistics. “And if they are not, we are prepared with alternatives who are ready to go to cast their ballot if needed.”
And in a uniquely 2020 twist, the Biden campaign has also spent significant energy ensuring that the gathering spots for electors — who meet in every state capital and in Washington, D.C. — don’t turn into the next coronavirus hot spots.
“The governor’s people are very concerned, as are the Biden transition team, that these Electoral College events around the country don’t turn into 50 super-spreader events,” said Sharif Street, a Biden elector and Pennsylvania state senator.
The Trump campaign declined requests for comment about how it intends to handle Monday’s Electoral College ceremonies, including whether the president will direct his electors to show up in key states he lost but continues to contest: Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Despite the lawsuits and other disruptions Trump has unleashed on the election, Biden electors in those key states told POLITICO they’ve largely escaped the wrath of Trump’s base in the run-up to the vote — a sharp break from four years ago, when Trump’s presidential electors were under siege, barraged by furious activists demanding that they reject him. At the time, electors reported death threats, mountains of hate mail and damage to their livelihoods.
The intensity of the threats Biden electors have faced so far, three days before they vote, pales in comparison with the 2016 lobbying effort. Biden’s campaign said this may have to do with Trump’s relentless focus on state election officials from both parties who certified results that showed him losing. And while most said they’ve experienced no problems, some are also wary that Trump could shift on a dime and train his fury — and rabid supporters on them — anytime between now and Monday.
“I thought we would see, frankly, a little bit more of that kind of thing happening up to this point,” said Blake Mazurek, a Michigan elector and a teacher active with the local Democratic Party. “I anticipate that might change as we get closer to the actual date, once there’s some recognition that this is happening … I’m going to ride this wave, and hope we don’t become the glaring objects in the spotlight. But I fear that would probably happen.”
Asked about safety concerns ahead of the Monday vote, some electors described detailed but secretive security measures — from keeping initial meeting sites for electors hidden until the last minute to close coordination with the Biden campaign to ensure a seamless process — all balanced against efforts to protect electors from coronavirus, too.
Biden’s campaign and its legal advisers are coordinating the effort with state parties and state governments. The Democratic National Committee is similarly playing a coordinating role, ensuring that state parties have plans in place to guarantee that electors arrive on time and have backups necessary in case someone is late for the event.
It’s a complicated undertaking in a normal election, with state governments and the District of Columbia managing 51 distinct processes. The Constitution provides little guidance on how electors are meant to discharge their responsibilities other than mandating that they meet on the same day. Party officials say it’s up to state governments, often in coordination with state parties, to iron out the details.
Biden officials note that most of the Electoral College meetings are taking place in state capitols that have security procedures in place and are equipped to handle any unexpected developments. Many state legislative leaders are making their chambers available for the Electoral College vote, a move dictated by state law in some places.
Security is on the mind of several Michigan electors, in particular, after armed demonstrators entered the state capitol in April and an FBI operation broke up a plot to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in October.
“I do expect there to be some confrontation on Monday, because that’s just how these unpatriotic, so-called Americans have been behaving,” Marseille Allen, another Michigan elector, echoed. “And it’s disappointing. But as an African American and indigenous woman, I’m not surprised at the behavior.”
Electors will be escorted by state troopers from their cars to the state capitol if they would like, and there will be other security measures in place.
Electors with higher profiles prior to their selection have reported receiving more harassment than lesser-known Democrats selected for the role. Some are already prominent politicians in their own right — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers is a Biden elector, for example — but other party activists and politicians who are active online have received the brunt of the harassment.
“It’s really been unrelenting,” Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, an elector, said. “Some are form emails. Some people might send a form email, but they spiced it up with their own language.” He said he has gotten hundreds of such messages. “I got one today, this one talks about us laundering kickbacks through kids,” which he said he assumes is QAnon-related. (He also said he previously got messages as a legislator asking him to stop the certification.)
Kenyatta said he has received “a bunch of threatening messages,” but “nothing directly related” to being an elector. “With me, a lot of them are homophobic,” he said. (Kenyatta is openly gay.) He says he has reported some messages to law enforcement.
Some electors expected that the lower intensity facing electors was the result of Trump’s lingering focus on long-shot legal fights, including an unlikely last-ditch bid to get the Supreme Court involved. But others noted that in 2016, the pressure campaign focused on Republican electors who were lukewarm about Trump — whose takeover of the GOP had not fully come to pass — whereas Biden’s electors aren’t the slightest bit wobbly.
“They know it would be futile to try to change my mind,” said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, another of the state’s 20 electors.
“I don’t know if I need any instructions on how to be safe,” he added. “I’m in the labor movement. I have people threatening me all the time.”
While electors are still meeting in person — the plain reading of many state laws requires that electors still meet, often in the state’s capital — electors said they’re all taking precautions to ensure they fulfill their duties as quickly as possible and to minimize risk.
Electors across several states described various safeguards, including limiting or entirely eliminating the number of guests each elector has accompanying them, mandating masks and social distancing and nixing traditional celebrations and ceremonies around the vote.
“I don’t even think the 10 of us are going to grab dinner together when we convene,” said Khary Penebaker, a Democratic National Committee member and Wisconsin elector. “And that’s because we need to be safe and responsible.”
Despite the pandemic and various security measures, electors were upbeat about playing a role in Biden’s ascension to the White House. Many said they were excited to be a part of history, though they viewed their role as primarily ceremonial and said that regardless of what comes their way, it won’t derail Biden’s victory.
“If you tackle the guy handing out the Lombardi Trophy,” said Street, the Biden elector from Pennsylvania, describing the prize awarded to winners of the Super Bowl, “it doesn’t change the game.”
Tyler Pager contributed to this report.