(WASHINGTON) — Senators Susan Collins and Joe Manchin joined forces Wednesday to propose changes to a 19th century law that former President Donald Trump and his allies exploited to try to overturn his 2020 election loss.
Manchin, D-W.Va., and Collins, R-Maine, testified before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee about reforming the Electoral Count Act — a vaguely worded 1887 law that governs the counting of each state’s electoral votes for president.
The once obscure law became a focal point of Trump’s scheme to remain in power as he pressured Republican lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence to reject votes for Joe Biden from certain states during the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021.
Nearly 150 Republicans maintained objections to electors from Arizona and Pennsylvania, even after the violence that broke out at the U.S. Capitol.
“We were all there on Jan. 6,” Manchin said in his testimony. “That happened, that was for real. It was not a visit from friends back home. We have a duty and responsibility to make sure it never happens again.”
Collins and Manchin introduced legislation in late July aimed at modernizing the law after months of negotiation with a group of 16 senators. On Wednesday, they urged colleagues to pass what they said are sensible and desperately needed reforms during this Congress.
“In four out of the past six presidential elections, the Electoral Count Act’s process for counting electoral votes has been abused with frivolous objections being raised by members of both parties,” Collins told the committee. “But it took the violent breach of the Capitol on Jan. 6 to really shine a spotlight on how urgent the need for reform was.”
The first bill — the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act — would raise the threshold for lawmakers to raise objections to state electors. Under current law, one House member and one senator are needed to raise an objection. In their proposal, one-fifth of the House and the Senate would be needed to object.
That measure would also clarify the role of the vice president as purely ministerial, after debate over whether Pence had the authority to unilaterally change, reject or halt the counting of electoral votes.
“It unambiguously clarifies that the vice president … is prohibited from interfering with electoral votes,” Manchin said.
The second bill would double the penalty under federal law for individuals who threaten or intimidate election officials, poll watchers, voters or candidates from one year to two years.
Earlier this summer, former election officials testified before the Jan. 6 committee on the threats they faced in the wake of the 2020 election.
Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, a mother-daughter duo from Georgia, described how being the target of a Twitter post from Trump — in which he falsely alleged they were smuggling suitcases of ballots — upended their lives and careers.
Both women said they’re afraid to use their names, and Freeman was told by the FBI she had to leave her home for two months because of threats.
“I haven’t been anywhere at all,” she said. I’ve gained about 60 pounds. I just don’t do nothing anymore. I don’t want to go anywhere. All because of lies — for me doing my job, same thing I’ve been doing forever.”
The Senate Rules and Administration Committee on Wednesday also heard from a panel of experts on elections and governance studies on the proposed changes to the Electoral Count Act.
Bob Bauer, a scholar in residence at New York University School of Law, said legal scholars have long called for reform and that the bills offered by Manchin and Collins are a “vast improvement over existing law.”
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