Get Electoral Act reforms to finish line

York Dispatch editorial board
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, right, listens as Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a joint session of Congress to count the Electoral College votes of the 2020 presidential election in the House Chamber on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Erin Scott/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

One of the few successes of the Trump administration was making clear to the American people just how porous are the foundations of U.S. democracy.

Time and again, President Donald Trump and his sycophants demonstrated that what were taken as bedrock tenets of the executive branch of the federal government were actually just mores, or guidelines, or best practices.

From failing to disclose his tax returns as a candidate to refusing to attend his successor’s inauguration as a defeated incumbent, Trump violated norms from start to finish. Add steering taxpayer money to his private businesses, handing out presidential pardons to undeserving cronies, and lying to the public — again and again and again — about everything from the course of hurricanes to a deadly pandemic, and Trump’s four years make up one long index of practices that the legislative branch should lose no time in outlawing to prevent similar abuses by future presidents.

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Chief among them, as the House committee probing the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capital has made clear, is the process for administering presidential elections.

The Electoral Count Act of 1887, which outlines the process for counting, submitting and certifying Electoral College votes, is a loophole-ridden anachronism that did its job well enough until a shameless charlatan found his way into the White House.

Its flawed, vague language opened the door to Trump’s efforts to convince leaders in states he lost to disregard public votes and appoint their own alternative electors. A frightening number of lawmakers — including dozens of Pennsylvania Republicans — were all too eager to comply.

The Trumpest fantasy then called for congressional Republicans to raise objections to individual states’ electoral ballots when they were counted on Jan. 6 (they did) and for Vice President Mike Pence, who oversaw the certification, to refuse to accept contested ballots (he didn’t).

Still, it was a close call, and what with Trump-fanned rioters storming the Capitol, the future of the Republic was legitimately, if briefly, imperiled.

Actually, scratch the word “briefly.” Because as the House committee has also shown, the threat continues, and not only in the form of another Trump campaign. Plenty of current Republican candidates — including Pennsylvania gubernatorial hopeful state Sen. Doug Mastriano — are running as unabashed election deniers who seemingly would not pause at supporting similar tactics in future elections.

That’s why it was welcome news last month that a bipartisan group of senators announced a plan to update the Electoral Count Act.

The proposal — which has 16 co-sponsors, including nine Republicans — would shore up the elections process by:

  • Requiring at least 20 percent of the members of both the House and Senate to challenge a state’s electors (rather than a single individual from each chamber under current law).
  • Designating state governors as solely responsible for certifying their state’s electors.
  • Specifying that the vice president’s role is solely ministerial and that “he or she does not have any power to solely determine, accept, reject, or otherwise adjudicate disputes over electors.”

These provisions, along with eliminating unclear language that could enable state legislatures to override a popular vote, will go a long way to preventing a repeat attempt to undermine or reverse a presidential election.

The Republican backing is key. Those nine senators are just one short of the theoretical number needed to help the 50-Democrat majority overcome filibuster threats.

One concern: As we saw last week with the defeat of a previously supported measure to expand medical aid for U.S. veterans exposed to toxins in battle, partisanship can easily reverse the fate of even popular legislation.

This must not happen with the Electoral Act bill.

Frankly, passage of the reform ought to be a slam-dunk, given broad bipartisan support. But the Senate must act quickly, with the House to follow, to ensure that, as with the veterans bill, political winds don’t blow a popular, much-needed measure off course.