The question of “who saved the electoral ballots” was one of many sub-threads of discourse about the Capitol riots of January 6 2021, and one widely shared January 7 2021 tweet credited two young Senate aides as the saviors of democracy (archived):
Atop a photograph of two masked young women calmly carrying a box, the user wrote:
Here are the women – Senate aides – who had the presence of mind and courage to transport and keep safe the electoral votes before fleeing the Senate. There will always be villains. There will always be heroes.
A version shared to Reddit’s r/pics was also popular,
The fate of the electoral ballots entered the discourse a few hours after the Capitol was breached, when Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley tweeted a photograph of the boxes similar to the ones carried by the two young women:
Sen. Merkley credited “floor staff” for having “grabbed” the electoral ballots, presumably as Congress members and staff were evacuated from the advancing mob:
Electoral college ballots rescued from the Senate floor. If our capable floor staff hadn’t grabbed them, they would have been burned by the mob.
Although Merkley confirmed that the ballots were, along with lawmakers, safe from the hands of rioters, he did not provide much detail about how they were secured. It appeared that after Merkley’s photograph of the boxes circulated, some readers inferred that an image of the women carrying the boxes on the same day showed the events that Merkley had described.
However, the photograph labeled as Senate aides transporting the ballots did not appear to match the chaotic timeline of events as reported after the Capitol was breached. Just before 10 PM Eastern on January 6 2021, Washington Post reporter Paul Kane published an eyewitness account of the evacuation (“Inside the assault on the Capitol: Evacuating the Senate”) of the Capitol building.
Kane explained how staff and reporters in the Chamber were apprised of the advancing danger:
It was 2:15 p.m. Wednesday and the U.S. Capitol was under assault, the most brazen attack on Congress since terrorists hijacked an airplane and attempted to slam it into the building more than 19 years ago … Suddenly, Vice President Pence, who had been presiding over the chamber from the Senate dais, got a signal that it was time to move.
In the photograph in the tweet, the two women carrying the box were shown calmly walking through velvet ropes — similar but not identical to velvet ropes seen in the viral photographs of the Capitol breach:
According to Kane, staff and reporters evacuated from the Chamber did not exit the same way they came in (through the velvet ropes), and were instead evacuated away from the rioters. Kane stated that he briefly exited the Chamber to investigate sounds, returning right before everything escalated:
I retreated back up to the third-floor press gallery in time to see Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) finish defending her state’s electoral count for Biden. Then Capitol Police and staff ordered everyone into the Senate Chamber.
For our own safety.
Soon, the Senate was sealed off and the session was adjourned. Capitol Police raced around the two-story Senate Chamber locking every set of doors.
Then Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) looked at her phone and announced: “Shots fired.”
A veteran Capitol Police officer tried to calm the senators, telling them the report might not be accurate. But at 2:30 p.m., police ordered everyone out.
In the most dramatic moments of the siege, with armed officers in every corner of the Senate, police began barking out instructions. They marched us all — a phalanx of senators, staff and press — through multiple office buildings in search of the safest grounds to shelter on the Capitol complex.
We didn’t know it at the time, but a similar scene was playing out on the other side of the Capitol, where the House Chamber was evacuated and lawmakers ran for cover in a secure location on their side of the building.
Going by Kane’s eyewitness account, lawmakers and staffers were not evacuated through areas like the ones in the “velvet ropes” photographs. Rather, Capitol law enforcement led groups of lawmakers, journalists, and aides “through multiple office buildings” during a search for “the safest grounds to shelter” — consequently, the ballots definitely made the same “back way” path through the offices of the Capitol rather than its main entrances. Additionally, the siege began around 2:30 PM local time.
The image of the aides carrying the ballots could not possibly have been taking during the evacuation. The photograph was part of Getty Images’ archive, captured on January 6 2021 by Caroline Brehman:
ELECTORAL COLLEGE COUNT
UNITED STATES – January 6 : Chamber Assistants carry Electoral College ballot boxes during a joint session of Congress to tally the electoral votes for the president and vice president in the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Brehman also addressed the image on Twitter on January 8 2021, debunking the viral tweet’s claims:
Brehman helpfully provided a timestamp for the photograph, saying:
I am getting a lot of emails about this photo. This photo was taken BEFORE the Capitol had been infiltrated. The electoral college votes are always carried to the House chamber for the VP to count. These women were NOT “saving” the votes. The time stamp on this photo is 12:57 pm[.]
Brehman indicated that the image was taken at 12:57 PM on January 6 2021; the evacuation was more than an hour later. By all accounts the ballots were secured — and according to Senator Tammy Duckworth, done so by one unidentified Senate aide:
Precisely who saved the electoral ballots from the advancing insurrectionists in the Capitol on January 6 2021 was not known, although they were definitely secured. A viral tweet misidentified Brehman’s photograph as aides saving the ballots; that image captured a moment that took place before right-wing protesters breached the Capitol.