Bipartisan Senate group reaches deal to rewrite voter count law

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday proposed new legislation to modernize the 135-year-old voter count law, working to overhaul a law that President Donald J. Trump tried to abuse on Jan. 6, 2021. , to interfere with Congress’ certification of his electoral defeat.

The legislation aims to ensure a peaceful transition from one president to the next, after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol revealed how the current law could be manipulated to disrupt the process. A measurement would make it harder for lawmakers to challenge a state’s electoral votes when Congress meets to count them. It would also clarify that the vice president has no discretion over the results, and it would set out the steps to begin a presidential transition.

A second invoice increase penalties for threats and intimidation of election officials, seek to improve the Postal Service’s processing of mail-in ballots, and renew for five years an independent federal agency that helps states administer and secure federal elections .

While passing the legislation cannot guarantee that a repeat of Jan. 6 will not happen again in the future, its authors believe that a rewrite of the outdated law, particularly the provisions relating to the role of the vice president , could discourage such efforts and make it more difficult to disrupt the vote count.

Alarmed by the events of Jan. 6 that exposed longstanding flaws in the law governing the voter count process, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Senators Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Joe Manchin III, Democrat of Virginia- Occidentale, had been meeting for months to try to agree on the rewrite.

“In four of the last six presidential elections, this process has been abused, with members of both parties raising frivolous objections to electoral votes,” Ms Collins said on Wednesday. “But it took the violent Capitol breach on January 6, 2021 to really shine a light on the urgent need for reform.”

In a joint statement, the 16 senators involved in the talks said they set out to “fix the flaws” in the voter count law, which they called “archaic and ambiguous”. The statement said the group believes that, in consultation with election law experts, it has “developed legislation that establishes clear guidelines for our electoral vote certification and counting system for the president and vice president.”

Although the authors are short of the 10 Republican senators needed to ensure the voter count bill can pass the filibuster and pass the final vote if all Democrats support it, they said they hope to secure a sufficient support for a vote later this year. .

Ms Collins said she expected the Senate Rules Committee to convene a hearing on the measures before the August recess. Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and chair of the panel, was consulted during the drafting of the legislation.

The bills were announced on the eve of a prime-time hearing by the House committee investigating the events surrounding the Jan. 6 attack, including Mr. Trump to invalidate his defeat. They also came as an investigation intensified into efforts by Mr Trump and his allies to overturn Georgia’s presidential election results. A Georgia judge has ordered Rudolph W. Giuliani, who led a campaign to overturn election results in Mr. Trump’s name, to appear before a special grand jury in Atlanta next month.

The legislative effort in the Senate began immediately after the Jan. 6 attack, which unfolded as Congress gathered for the traditional counting of the ballots that is the last official confirmation of the presidential election results before the inauguration. On the eve of the riot, Mr Trump tried unsuccessfully to persuade Vice President Mike Pence – who chaired the session in his capacity as Senate Speaker – to unilaterally block the count, citing false allegations of voter fraud .

The new legislation focuses on the treatment of electoral votes and does not incorporate the broader voting protections sought by Democrats after some states instituted new laws seen as making it harder for people to vote after Democratic wins in 2020 Senate Republicans have previously blocked those ballot measures. .

While there may be disagreement over specific provisions, there is a widespread feeling in Congress that some steps need to be taken to strengthen the voter count law, which Manchin said on Wednesday had been “weaponized”. January 6th.

Supporters of the legislation were optimistic it could pass this year, seeing the delay as their best opportunity given the prospect that Republicans, many of whom have backed contested electoral votes for Joseph R. Biden Jr. , could control the House next time. year.

“The voter count law needs to be fixed,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and Minority Leader, said Tuesday. He said Ms Collins had kept him informed of the bipartisan negotiations and that he was ‘sympathetic’ to the aims of those working on the legislation.

Under the proposed vote count overhaul, a state’s governor would be identified as solely responsible for submitting a state’s voters list after the presidential vote, prohibiting other officials from doing so. The provision was intended to thwart efforts similar to those by Mr. Trump and his supporters, who sought to come up with their own voter pools that were unrecognized by states and did not reflect the popular vote.

In order to prevent unfounded efforts to oppose a state’s vote count, a minimum of one-fifth of the House and Senate would be required to file an objection — a substantial increase from the current one-member threshold. of the House and a senator. . Objections should always be supported by a majority of the House and Senate.

The bill would also create a new fast-track route for a candidate to challenge a state’s voters list. Under the proposal, those claims would be heard by a special three-judge panel with a direct appeal to the Supreme Court.

Following an impasse over the presidential transition in 2020, when Trump administration officials initially refused to provide Mr. Biden with funding and office space to begin preparations to take office, the legislation would allow more than one candidate to receive transitional resources if the result remained in dispute.

And after the push by Mr. Trump and his allies to get Mr. Pence to manipulate the electoral count in favor of Mr. Trump, the legislation would state that the role of the vice president is primarily ceremonial and that “he or she does not ‘has no power’. determine, accept, reject or otherwise adjudicate voter disputes,” according to a summary of the measure.

“I think it’s important to make sure that the details around Jan. 6, in terms of any kind of questions about the vice president’s role, are clarified,” said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the one of the Democrats behind the legislation.

Besides Ms Collins, the other Republican members of the bipartisan group supporting the revision of the electoral count are Senators Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Utah Romney, Ben Sasse. from Nebraska, Thom Tillis from North Carolina and Todd Young from Indiana.

Besides Mr. Manchin and Mr. Warner, the Democrats are Senators Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, Chris Coons of Delaware, Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.