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Opinion: Amend federal law to prevent future election disputes

In the 2020 election, we saw the system tested by those who weaponized ambiguity to manipulate election outcomes

A trump supporter protests the 2020 election outcome.
Jake Contos, a supporter of President Donald Trump, chants during a protest in November 2020 against the election results outside the central counting board at the TCF Center in Detroit.
David Goldman, Associated Press

Everyone loves a high-stakes championship game. There is nothing quite like the adrenaline that rushes as things come down to the wire. We fight harder or lean past the edge of our seats and pray our team pulls it out.

But, win or lose, we find joy in these games because we trust they are fair. We agree to put it all on the line knowing that both teams acknowledge the rules, will play clean, and will honor the outcome.

But what if, in the time between that big win and the moment when they award the trophy, the losing team insists we change the scoring system, and, thereby, the outcome? What if their fans rush the field and threaten the referees? How would that impact not only that game, but all games going forward?

For almost 135 years the Electoral Count Act of 1887 has set the rules for how we finalize our national elections. Like so many things in our democracy, it was a system based on both law and norms. In the past, it worked because all candidates and their supporters valued tradition, trust and fair play.

But in the 2020 election, we saw the system tested by those who weaponized ambiguity to manipulate election outcomes. This will likely impact all elections going forward, so updating the Electoral Count Act is one of the most pressing priorities for the continued protection of fair play in our American form of governance.

The act is one of the most important pieces of legislation you have probably never heard of. It’s an obscure law that describes the process of casting and counting electoral votes after a presidential election. Until the last election, everyone followed the time-honored process. But the act is vulnerable to partisan manipulation because the language of the text is ambiguous and outdated.

The nonpartisan National Task Force on Election Crises has recommended that Congress update the Electoral Count Act with clarified language in order to protect against future crises during presidential elections.

Despite our disagreements, Americans want to look to the future with hope and security. Hope and security are threatened now, and we must act to assure the peaceful transition of power is supported not only by norms but in clearly codified law. We must be proactive in updating the act, both because polling shows this is the will of a bipartisan majority of the American public and because it is the right thing to do.

Here are three broad arguments in support of updating the act. Alone, each one of these justifies updating the law, but together they show how critical this act is to our national well-being.

National security

The U.S. is the most vulnerable to foreign interference or threats during times of transition, and our period of presidential transition is unusually long. Disruptions to the process of counting electoral votes hamper cooperation between administrations and impede the sharing of critical information. This weakness is public and obvious, leaving our country and people insecure. Foreign nations were likely unprepared to take full advantage of this chaos in 2020, but this certainly will not be true in the future. Updating the Electoral Count Act eliminates self-serving election disputes and ensures timely and secure transitions of power.

Economic security

Besides national security risks, a disputed election outcome creates uncertainty and chaos that threatens the economic stability of the nation and the world. Severe political divisions have caused a nation’s economic growth to halt in the past, and political uncertainty in the U.S. could have devastating effects on the entire global economy. Updating the act with precise language for resolving various presidential election disputes could prevent economic catastrophes caused by exploitation of the current law.

Political security

Democracy remains the best form of government for personal human development, and we must not allow threats of authoritarianism to overcome the will of the people. As it currently stands, partisans from either the left or right could abuse ambiguity in the act to unjustly claim power. The Electoral Count Act must be updated to clarify that, among other things, the vice president does not have the authority to override electoral votes and members of Congress cannot object to a state’s certified election results simply because they dislike a particular outcome.

The act must be revised to unambiguously prohibit a handful of elected officials from overriding the will of millions of Americans and to protect a state’s right to resolve its own electoral disputes without inappropriate meddling.

Our presidential elections are a very high-stakes championship game. Many people are invested in the outcome, and emotions run high. Elections must be decided on an even playing field, where the rules are clear and trust is high.

An updated Electoral Count Act with clear rules would encourage politicians to act with honor and trustworthiness — and provide a failsafe if they do not.

Providing a secure foundation for the democratic transfer of presidential power is necessary to protect our national, economic, and political security. We call on our elected officials in Congress, including Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, to prioritize an act update. Before we start our next political championship game, and long before there is a clear favorite, let’s make sure we all agree on the rules.

Jamie Shaw and Barbara Price are volunteers for Mormon Women for Ethical Government. Shaw is the group’s community lead for St. George/Cedar City and Price is the community lead for Cache Valley.