Efforts to reform the US presidential election count continue

Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Washington are advancing plans to rewrite the rules by which Congress counts electoral votes in presidential elections, to prevent another attempt to nullify legitimate results, which happened when former President Donald Trump has refused to come to terms with his loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 contest.

The effort is bipartisan, with members of both parties agreeing that the rules need to change. However, there are disagreements over precisely how to reform the current law, which was put in place by the Electoral Count Act of 1887.

The drive to rewrite vote counting rules comes at a time when the integrity of elections across the country is in question. A slew of mostly Republican candidates for top state jobs, as well as the House and Senate, refused to say they would respect the results of elections scheduled for November. Many have suggested that in specific races the only way a Republican candidate can lose is through voter fraud.

Many Republicans continue to insist, wrongly, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump. Republican candidates in swing states that Biden won in 2020, such as Arizona and Pennsylvania, said they would not have certified Biden’s victory if they had been in power at the time. Biden’s victory in both states was confirmed by post-election audits.

Others said they would be open to retroactively “decertifying” Biden’s victory – something that has never been done before and would face major legal challenges.

Threat to democracy

Some pundits have been ringing alarm bells for much of the past two years, warning that elected officials’ willingness to overturn election results poses a deadly threat to the United States’ system of government.

“We have never faced this before in American history, where a large faction of one of the two main parties seems to be linked and determined to declare that the elections they lose are fraudulent,” Larry Sabato, director from the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. , told VOA. “And they are paving the way legally, to be able to do that by electing individuals who will have a say, in various respects, in the outcome of the election.”

FILE – Trump supporters carry a ‘Stop the Steal’ and campaign sign after Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden overtook President Donald Trump during the Pennsylvania general election vote count, in Philadelphia, on 6 November 2020.

He added: “If this becomes the norm in one of the two main parties, you cannot have a functioning democratic system.”

While successful, bipartisan reform of the voter count law would not eliminate all the ways partisan actors could attempt to overturn election results, it would eliminate one of the justifications used by Trump supporters after the 2020 competition.

Disruption of the 2020 count

According to US law, in a presidential election, voters in each state choose a list of “voters” who then vote for the president. The candidate who obtains the majority of the 538 electoral votes wins the presidency.

At a set time after a presidential election, Congress meets to officially count the electoral votes. This is where things got complicated in 2020, as Trump supporters insisted that Vice President Mike Pence, who chaired the Senate during the recount, had the unilateral power to refuse to count the votes. specific state votes.

In the end, Pence, agreeing with most legal authorities, decided he didn’t actually have that authority. The count continued, until it was interrupted by a mob of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol building and forced members of Congress to flee. The legislators then returned and completed their task.

Bills currently before Congress would eliminate the ambiguous language of the 1887 Act, making it clear that the vice president’s role in vote counting is ministerial – meaning he has no discretion to choose the votes counted.

Competing invoices

In the Senate, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Republican Susan Collins and Democrat Joe Manchin spent much of the year hammering out a proposal to rewrite the election rules.

In the House, the bill with the greatest chance of success appears to be a bill recently introduced by Republican Liz Cheney and Democrat Zoe Lofgren.

Both bills would place clear limits on the vice president’s authority when counting votes, but they differ on other points.

Currently, all it takes is the objection of a House member and a senator to start a debate about whether lawmakers should refuse to accept electoral votes from a specific state. However, while the Collins-Manchin bill would raise the bar to one-fifth of the vote in each house, the House version sets the threshold even higher, at one-third of all members.

Both bills also contain provisions covering the possibility of a state not submitting its election votes and giving candidates the right to seek redress in federal court if a governor refuses to report election results to Congress. However, they differ on how to define a “failed election” in a specific state, that is, an election that does not generate a result.

The House bill requires that the vote be interrupted by a natural disaster and that the failure of the election be certified by a federal judge. The Senate bill is less specific about what constitutes a failed election.

Passing prospects

In general, Democrats are more supportive of voter count law reform than Republicans. In the House, this is not a major obstacle to passage, as the Democrats hold an absolute majority. In the Senate, however, a reform bill would need to garner at least 10 Republican votes and unified Democratic support to advance and ultimately pass the chamber.

“The question is whether these two different versions can be reconciled in a way that 10 Republicans in the Senate will agree to,” William A. Galston, senior researcher of the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies program, told VOA. “If the Senate bill goes as far as Republicans are willing to go, will House Democrats accept the Senate version as better than nothing?”

He added, “I’ve heard seemingly compelling arguments from both sides, but my own position is this: the Senate version would be significantly better than nothing. In other words, it would represent a significant step forward from the status quo. …Now is not the time to let the best be the enemy of the good, or at least the good enough.

Encouraging Similarities

Michael Thorning, director of the Structural Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told VOA that the bills’ overall similarity and the fact that both have bipartisan support suggests there’s a good chance lawmakers find an agreement.

“There’s not just bipartisan agreement, but I think there’s also bicameral agreement that Congress needs to act on this, and it needs to act quickly,” he said.

Thorning noted that while the proximate cause for the push to reform the way electoral votes are counted is Trump’s effort to cancel the 2020 election, that wasn’t the only challenge to the legitimacy of a presidential election. recent memory.

In 2000 and 2016, the Democratic presidential candidate won the national popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, a very frustrating result for members of that party, but still well within the bounds of US election law.

FILE - Hillary Clinton, with her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, left, receives applause during her concession speech to President-elect Donald Trump in New York, November 9, 2016. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but Trump won the College election.

FILE – Hillary Clinton, with her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, left, receives applause during her concession speech to President-elect Donald Trump in New York, November 9, 2016. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but Trump won the College election.

In 2004, Democrats claimed that election irregularities in Ohio might have unfairly swung that state’s 20 votes to George W. Bush, giving him the headroom he needed to defeat his Democratic rival, John Kerry, in the Presidency.

In all three cases, Democratic members of Congress attempted to delay certification of the election by challenging individual state votes.

“It speaks to the need to raise the threshold for objections,” Thorning said. “I think the experience of the past decades is that the threshold is too low and it’s too easy for members to launch unsubstantiated objections or ‘statements’.”

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