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Senate unites in bipartisan support of Electoral Count Act reform

Republican Mitch McConnell urges passage of ECRA to secure future presidential elections

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Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Roy Blunt open a meeting on the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., chair of the Senate Rules Committee, left, and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the ranking member, open a meeting on the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. The bill is a response to the Jan. 6 insurrection and former President Donald Trump’s efforts to find a way around the Electoral Count Act, the 19th-century law that, along with the Constitution, governs how states and Congress certify electors and declare presidential election winners.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

The American people have never been more disillusioned with their institutions and skeptical of their elections, polls suggest. In a rare bipartisan move, Congress is hoping to reverse that trend. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, joined Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, on Tuesday in voting to advance a bill that would reform an antiquated law that was used as grounds in the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election. 

“Congress’ process for counting the presidential electors’ votes was written 135 years ago. The chaos that came to a head on January 6th of last year certainly underscored the need for an update,” McConnell said in a statement.

The Electoral Count Reform Act, which McConnell endorsed in a Senate Rules Committee meeting last Tuesday, is meant to address ambiguities found in the Electoral Count Act of 1887. The centuries-old measure governs the process of sending, counting and certifying electoral votes for presidential elections. But its shortcomings have complicated multiple presidential elections, according to McConnell. Most notably, the 1887 statute was invoked to organize alternative slates of electors and pressure former Vice President Mike Pence to obstruct the certification of the 2020 presidential election results, according to revelations from the House Jan. 6 committee.

The bill was introduced by Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin on July 20 after months of bipartisan negotiations. It would amend the Electoral Count Act by clarifying the purely ceremonial role of the vice president in certifying elections, reaffirming that a state’s electors must be selected according to already existing state law, and raising the threshold needed for members of Congress to lodge objections to electoral votes. Currently the certification of a presidential election can be halted if just one member of each chamber raises an objection.

“After 150 years the Electoral Count Act needs some modest updates. Those of us in the committee know it. I believe all of our colleagues in the Senate know it. And the American people certainly know it,” McConnell said at the Senate Rules Committee meeting where the legislation was approved 14-1 — Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, casting the lone no-vote. 

A majority of voters agree with McConnell, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted Sept. 23-25 among 2,000 registered voters. Of the respondents, 52% said they support the passage of a bill making it harder for Congress to override presidential election results, while 53% said they supported a similar bill for state governments. 

Bipartisan agreement is even higher among the 4,000 Republicans, Democrats and independents asked to study the Electoral Count Act and its proposed amendments before taking an informed opinion poll conducted by the National Institute for Civil Discourse. The poll found that 90% of respondents support clarifying the vice president’s role in certifying presidential elections and three-quarters support raising the threshold to object to the results. These popular reforms have been written into a competing House bill as well. 

A companion bill to the Collins-Manchin bill was introduced in the House earlier this month only to be shelved by Democratic leadership in favor of a more aggressive piece of legislation sponsored by Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., of the Jan. 6 select committee. The Cheney-Lofgren bill passed a House vote on Sept. 21, 229-203, with only nine Republicans voting in favor. All nine are retiring at the end of this term or were defeated in primary elections. Republican leaders cited Cheney’s involvement in constructing the legislation, the bill’s lack of Republican input and its more expansive approach when compared with the Senate bill as reasons for not supporting it.

Though the two bills are broadly similar, the House bill would do more to restrain state and federal leaders and includes a more comprehensive rewriting of the Electoral Count Act. While the Senate bill would require one-fifth of both chambers to object to the certification process, the House bill goes further, requiring one-third of both chambers to sign on to an objection. The House bill also specifies and narrows the grounds for making an objection, while the Senate bill maintains the language of the Electoral Count Act. 

According to McConnell, the Senate bill, with its limited approach and bipartisan origin, is the only bill with a chance of succeeding. 

“It’s clear that only a bipartisan compromise originating in the Senate can actually become law,” McConnell said. “In my view, the House bill is a nonstarter. We have one shot to get this right.”

The Senate bill, while not going as far as the House bill, looks like it has enough Republican support to avoid a filibuster if all Democrats vote for it. The original working group of nine Republicans and seven Democrats, including Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., recently gained six additional co-sponsors, bringing the total to 11 Democrats and 11 Republicans committed to supporting the bill in a Senate vote. This number is expected to rise with McConnell’s endorsement. 

“I strongly support the modest changes that our colleagues in the working group have fleshed out after months of detailed discussions. I will proudly support the legislation, provided that nothing more than technical changes are made to its current form,” McConnell said. 

The Senate will likely wait to vote on the legislation until after the midterm elections when Congress convenes again, Axios reported

“The substance of this bill is common sense,” McConnell said. “This is not an opportunity we should pass up.”