Bipartisan Senate Group Strikes Deal to Rewrite Electoral Count Act

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

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

A second bill would increase penalties for threats and intimidation of election officials and encourage steps to improve the handling of mail-in ballots by the Postal Service.

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

“From the beginning, our bipartisan group has shared a vision of drafting legislation to fix the flaws of the archaic and ambiguous Electoral Count Act of 1887,” 16 senators said in a joint statement. “Through numerous meetings and debates among our colleagues as well as conversations with a wide variety of election experts and legal scholars, we have developed legislation that establishes clear guidelines for our system of certifying and counting electoral votes for president and vice president.”

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Although the authors do not have the minimum 10 Republican senators needed to guarantee the legislation could make it past a filibuster and to final passage, they hope to round up sufficient backing for a vote later this year.

The legislative effort began after the Jan. 6 attack, which unfolded as Congress met for the traditionally routine counting of the electoral ballots that is the last official confirmation of presidential election results before the inauguration.

In the run-up to the riot, Mr. Trump tried unsuccessfully to persuade Vice President Mike Pence — who presided over the session in his capacity as president of the Senate — to unilaterally block the tally, citing false claims of election fraud.

The new legislation focuses mainly on the handling of electoral votes and does not incorporate wider voting protections sought by Democrats after some states instituted new laws seen as making it more difficult for people to vote following Democratic victories in 2020. Senate Republicans have previously blocked those voting measures.

There is widespread sentiment in Congress that some steps need to be taken to bolster the Electoral Count Act, although there may be disagreement on the specific provisions.

“The Electoral Count Act does need to be fixed,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, told reporters on Tuesday, saying he was “sympathetic” to the aims of those working on the legislation.

Under the proposal to overhaul the vote count, a state’s governor would be identified as the sole official responsible for submitting the state’s slate of electors following the presidential vote, barring other officials from doing so.

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In an effort to prevent frivolous efforts to object to a state’s electoral count, a minimum of one-fifth of the House and Senate would be needed to lodge an objection — a substantial increase from the current threshold of one House member and one senator. Objections would still have to be sustained by a majority of the House and Senate.

Following a standoff over the presidential transition in 2020, when Trump administration officials initially refused to provide President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. the funding and office space to begin preparations for assuming power, the legislation would allow more than one candidate to receive transition resources if the outcome remained in dispute.

After the push by Mr. Trump and his allies to get Mr. Pence to manipulate the electoral count in Mr. In Trump’s favor, the legislation would stipulate that the vice president’s role is mainly ceremonial and that “he or she does not have any power to solely determine, accept, reject or otherwise adjudicate disputes over electors.”

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

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