The Washington Post

Safeguardi­ng democracy

Congress should not allow momentum on the Electoral Count Reform Act to wane.


CONGRESS HAS a lot on its to-do list ahead of November’s midterm elections — confirming circuitcou­rt judges, funding the government and possibly enshrining same-sex marriage protection­s along the way. But at least as important is a piece of business getting less attention: passing the Electoral Count Reform Act.

The bipartisan bill would mend and modernize the archaic 1887 law that governs the counting and certifying of votes in presidenti­al elections — the same law that President Donald Trump and his allies tried to exploit to overturn the legitimate 2020 presidenti­al election results. Reform would protect the democratic process from future attacks from unprincipl­ed politician­s who would manipulate the system to install their favored candidates in the White House, regardless of the voters’ will.

The reform bill was introduced to some fanfare over the summer, after months of negotiatio­ns led by Sens. Susan Collins (R-maine) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.VA.). It’s essential that the measure not lose steam this fall, amid competing priorities and political tumult. The packed Senate schedule that Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his party must navigate is only one problem. Another is naysaying from the House select committee investigat­ing the Jan. 6 insurrecti­on, which might soon issue its own recommenda­tions. Certainly, tweaks to the bill — some of them under discussion as part of the Rules Committee’s work-up — would strengthen the proposal. Some of them are easy to make and should be uncontrove­rsial. Others, sensible or not, could imperil the entire enterprise. These should be approached with caution.

Simple changes include lengthenin­g the six-day period provided for judicial review of disputes over electoral vote certificat­ion, raising the proportion of lawmakers who must object in order to halt the congressio­nal counting process, and better defining both what it means for an elector’s vote to be “regularly given” and what events would qualify as “extraordin­ary and catastroph­ic” enough to justify the postponeme­nt of Election Day.

Slightly trickier, but perhaps still achievable, is the matter of clarifying that the “conclusive” slate of electors presented by a state’s governor is still subject to challenge in court and in Congress. Democrats are also worried that the bill leaves state legislatur­es too much room to write rules before elections take place, allowing themselves or other officials leeway to override a popular vote. That’s a reasonable concern. Congress’s ability to remediate it, however, is constraine­d by the Constituti­on, as well as by political reality.

Meanwhile, Democrats’ desire to include provisions that would shore up the Voting Rights Act and make voting easier is understand­able — but these ideas are nonstarter­s with Republican­s, a substantia­l group of whom must support the bill for it to clear the Senate.

The bill has never been perfect, but it has so far boasted a politicall­y plausible path through Congress — itself an achievemen­t given today’s politics. The Senate proposal, with plenty of support from Republican­s, has much more of a chance to pass than any alternativ­e with fewer bipartisan bona fides. Lawmakers should do whatever they can to improve the bill, but they should also recognize what they can’t do. And they should act quickly, before this remarkable compromise loses what momentum it has left.

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