The latest round of harrowing testimony before the Jan. 6 select committee should remind lawmakers just how little they, or our country, can afford to let Donald Trump — or anyone else — spuriously contest another presidential election.
Now Congress has a critical window of opportunity to do something about it. This week, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled legislation to reform the Electoral Count Act: the pitted, rusty-nailed, dark-cornered passage where schemers lie in wait for election winners seeking to reach the White House.
As they mull over the new blueprint for counting presidential votes this weekend, here are some factors that lawmakers weary of the relentless Washington heat might consider:
1) For Democrats still angry over the failure of sweeping voting-rights legislation, this deal may feel like less than half a loaf. But that is the wrong way to see it. Gerrymandering and efforts to make voting harder are toxic and must be resisted. But the more immediate threat is not on the front end of the vote — it’s on the back end, where Trump supporters are organizing to meddle with, and spread vicious lies about, the actual counting of ballots. In some ways, it may be a blessing that ECA reform was left out of Democrats’ bigger voting bills, because it allowed it to become the kind of low-salience, complicated issue on which members of Congress can still make deals.
2) As Ned Foley and colleagues point out, an Electoral Count Act reform must be as bipartisan as possible to maximize its legitimacy and minimize the odds a future Congress will decide to ignore it. Most congressional Republicans know that making up objections to election results is wrong. But since principle can also use a nudge from expedience in the Trump era, they might also consider that ECA reform provides them with political insurance. At the price of taking some MAGA heat now, they can buy themselves a solid shelter for 2024: Tightened criteria and higher thresholds for election objections will allow them to credibly say there is nothing they can do to “help” Donald Trump if he needs to find some electoral votes.
3) One of the bill’s virtues is that it clarifies that governors are the state officials who must submit slates of electors, and establishes a clear legal procedure for handling state-level disputes. This feature of the bill, however, also highlights the folly of Democrats’ too-clever-by-half strategy of backing MAGA candidates in gubernatorial primaries. If Doug Mastriano is governor of Pennsylvania in 2024, the election in that state is going to get ugly. The courts should be able to block shenanigans under a reform Electoral Count Act, but Democrats are courting disaster by helping to put people like Mastriano within reach of high office.
4) The bill raises penalties for threats against election officials, an important move in an era when presidential candidates whip up mobs to protest the honest counting of ballots. But the problem has gotten so bad that Congress should consider setting aside serious funding to provide those election workers subjected to the most intense harassment with security details. That is the sad state of our democracy.
The mayhem of Jan. 6 was made possible by the cardboard-and-duct-tape method we now use to certify presidential elections and the willingness of bad actors to exploit it. Lawmakers who don’t want to relive that day now have a chance to do something about it.
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