Others have noted that members of Congress have voted before to suspend the joint session certifying the Electoral College vote—which news accounts referred to as a “formality” because that’s what it’s supposed to be, unless an election is actually stolen. Since 1876, though, there have been exactly two such instances and both were genuine protest votes—they may have been inappropriate, but they aren’t comparable.
The first one, in 1969, was an objection to a faithless elector—a member of the Electoral College did not vote for the candidate to whom he was pledged. A representative and a senator objected to the certification of that vote, which was indeed stolen by the faithless elector, before Congress proceeded to confirm the overall vote.
The second one occurred in 2005, when a Democratic senator and a Democratic representative voted to reject Ohio’s electoral votes to draw attention to their concerns over alleged problems with electronic voting in the state. Not only were they careful to say that they weren’t challenging the result of the presidential election—no “stop the steal,” no claims that the president had actually won in a landslide and had the election stolen from him—but the losing Democratic candidate, John Kerry, had long since conceded to his opponent. (Nor had a mob just stormed the Capitol).
Read: The Bush-Gore recount is an omen for 2020
Some Republicans have raised the fact that the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, referred to Trump’s presidency as “illegitimate.” That may well be, but that happened long after the election was over and the transition was complete. She called Trump to concede less than 12 hours after the polls closed, and the Obama administration immediately started the transition process. There was no formal challenge that required suspending the session to debate whether to accept the actual results.
Today, by contrast, many GOP legislators have claimed for months that the election was fraudulent or stolen, and have explicitly and repeatedly called on their supporters to stop this fraud. The president not only refused to concede before they took their vote, but even as the storming of the Capitol was still under way, he once again claimed that he had won in a landslide.
A great misunderstanding about democracy is that it can be stolen or damaged only if formal rules are suspended or ignored. In fact, many authoritarian regimes are sticklers about formal rules, even as they undermine their meaning. Authoritarians may prosecute journalists in court, for example, instead of simply ordering that they be thrown in jail. The courts will go through all the motions, with judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys playing their assigned roles, as the case winds toward its preordained conclusion. The journalists end up in jail just as surely as if a royal decree had been issued, but all the formal pretenses are upheld along the way.