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In its dash to get out of Washington to end the year, Congress thankfully passed an important bill that has been in the works for quite some time.
Passage of legislation to reform the Electoral Count Act (ECA) may have happened at the last minute, as part of a larger government spending package, but this vital update to an antiquated law was made possible by months of hard work and bipartisan dialogue. Ever since violence erupted at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — fueled in part by former President Donald Trump and his attempts to weaponize ECA ambiguities — the need to update and better safeguard the process for counting electoral votes has been obvious.
Sometimes even the obvious things don’t get done in Washington. In this case, continued work and significant support from both parties got it across the finish line. This is a victory for American democracy, and Maine played a large role in the bill’s development and ultimate success.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins introduced the bill and was a lead negotiator, along with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The sustained work of these bipartisan negotiators eventually secured enough support, including from both Democratic and Republican leadership, to pass the bill in a closely divided U.S. Senate. This was no small feat.
“The Senate’s ECA reform effort is the result of nearly a year of bipartisan negotiation, including numerous meetings and debates among our colleagues as well as conversations with a wide variety of election experts and legal scholars,” Collins and Manchin said in a joint statement on Dec. 22. “Our bipartisan group worked tirelessly to draft this legislation that fixes the flaws of the archaic and ambiguous Electoral Count Act of 1887 and establishes clear guidelines for our system of certifying and counting electoral votes for President and Vice President. We are pleased that our legislation has passed the Senate and are grateful to have the support of so many of our colleagues.”
Not only does the bill clarify that the vice president’s role in certifying electors is ceremonial, it also takes steps such as raising the threshold for members of Congress to challenge electors, working to facilitate a single and definitive slate of electors from each state, and working to prevent states from changing their election laws after an election has already taken place.
Independent Sen. Angus King released his own discussion draft proposal for ECA reform in February, and became a cosponsor of the Collins-Manchin bill this fall. King serves on the Senate rules committee, and supported the ECA reform bill in a strong 14-1 committee vote to advance it in September. He stressed last week that he does not believe this bill is a substitute for “comprehensive voting rights and process reforms” but lauded it as the most important legislation passed this Congress. He credited other lawmakers involved, including Collins and Manchin, along with outside experts who provided historical and legal insight during the process.
“Today, the Senate took a necessary, historic, and commonsense step to remove dangerous ambiguities from the process governing presidential elections and protect our fragile American democracy. The Electoral Count Reform Act is the most important piece of legislation we’ve passed this Congress because it protects the foundation of our entire democratic system,” King said in his own Dec. 22 statement. “After attempts to overturn a free and fair election in 2021 exposed dangerous vulnerabilities in the antiquated Electoral Count Act, this bill was essential to defuse the ticking timebomb at the heart of our system of government. Now, as some continue to raise doubts about our electoral system, the bill ensures the ECA can never again be used as a weapon by disappointed candidates. The bipartisan Electoral Count Reform Act we passed today prevents abuse of the 1887 law by making the process for certifying a presidential election clearer and more resistant to manipulation and mischief.”
The man most responsible for recent manipulation and mischief, Donald Trump, has tried to claim that the need for the ECA reform bill proves him right, that then-Vice President Mike Pence did have the ability to overturn the results of the election. This is totally backward. Making it harder to take advantage of vague and antiquated language doesn’t prove Trump right, it prevents others from attempting his same amoral and ahistorical gambit.
The successful ECA reform effort is a repudiation, not a confirmation, of Trump’s dangerous argument and actions.