Senate aides rescued boxes containing 2020 electoral votes before evacuating the Capitol. Without them, Congress might not be able to affirm Biden's win Wednesday

  • Rioters protesting President Trump's loss of the 2020 election breached the Capitol building Wednesday afternoon, forcing members of Congress to evacuate the building.
  • Congress was in the middle of counting states' electoral votes, which are needed for one final reaffirmation of President-elect Biden's win under federal law.
  • Quick-thinking Senate aides grabbed the wooden boxes containing the electoral votes before being evacuated.
  • While multiple copies of the votes exist, Congress may not be able to certify Biden's win as quickly without those boxes.
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Pro-Trump rioters breached the Capitol this afternoon, forcing members of Congress to evacuate the building at 2:30 p.m. local time on Wednesday.

Congress was in the midst of a congressional joint session to count electoral votes from the 2020 presidential election. Federal law dictates that sealed certificates of each state's electoral votes — which were cast December 14 — are transported to the Congressional chamber in ceremonial, 18-inch by 10-inch mahogany boxes lined with leather.

As they evacuated, Senate staff grabbed the boxes, rescuing them from possible harm or vandalism. 

"If our capable floor staff hadn't grabbed them, they would have been burned by the mob," Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley tweeted.

These votes are a crucial piece in the final step, under federal law, to certify the 2020 presidential election and reaffirm the winner. Both Democrat and Republican members of the House of Representatives and Senate were to read the electoral results aloud and do an official count, while Vice President Mike Pence, the president of the Senate, presided.

At the end of the certification, which is traditionally just a ceremonial affair, the vice president should have declared President-elect Joe Biden the winner of the election had the process not been interrupted by extremists who besieged the Capitol. 

Congress could finish the electoral vote certification Wednesday night

Those ceremonial wooden boxes do not contain the only copy of each state's electoral vote count, so had they been left behind, the certification process could have preceded, but perhaps not as quickly.

After electors met and voted in their respective states in December, several copies of the electoral vote certificates were sent to each state's governor, the National Archives, and the local US district court judge in the area.

The Federal Registrar also posted digital copies of each certificate on the Electoral College webpage. 

But, given the boxes containing the physical copies of the certificates is safe and sound, Congress has one less barrier to overcome on Wednesday in order to finish the certification process.

Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia tweeted that he hopes Congress can get the Electoral College certification done tonight. "We'll stay whatever it takes … these thugs aren't running us off," he wrote. 

Other members of Congress are similarly hopeful.

Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth told CBS News Democratic senators are group texting, pushing their leaders to meet with Republican leadership to reconvene Wednesday night and finish the certification process.

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