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Reviews |  Susan Collins: Reform the electoral count law to avoid another January 6

Imagine my surprise when on January 6, 2017, I discovered that I had received an electoral vote to be Vice President of the United States – a position for which I was not a candidate – from an “infidel voter” of Washington State.

Four years later, on January 6, 2021, when a violent mob invaded the Capitol, I realized that my unearned vote in the Electoral College was no fun. This seemingly innocuous vote was an indication that our vote counting and certification system for President and Vice President had deep and serious structural problems.

These unfortunate flaws are codified in the Electoral Count Law, which guides the implementation of part of the presidential election process included in the Constitution. This 1887 law, loosely worded in the inaccessible language of another era, was intended to constrain Congress, but in practice it had the unintended effect of creating ambiguities that could potentially be used to expand the role of Congress and the vice president in ways that are unconstitutional.

Despite its flaws, the law was not an issue for more than a century due to the restraint of the people who exercised the serious, but limited, constitutional responsibility for vote counting. Vice Presidents and Congress supported the will of the people – even when they didn’t like the outcome.

For example, we saw it in 1961 and again in 2001, when Vice Presidents Richard Nixon and Al Gore fairly and dignifiedly presided over the counting of electoral votes despite losing close presidential elections. Vice President Gore even refused to hear Democratic objectors trying to make him president.

Then came the 2020 election. President Donald Trump and his allies both exploited weaknesses in the law and ignored the language of the Constitution. Mr Trump has argued that the vice president could overturn the election results. A violent mob temporarily halted the electoral count that would confirm President Biden’s victory.

The courage and integrity of Vice President Mike Pence that day cannot be overstated. He stood up to a determined president who pushed him relentlessly to swing the election in his direction. And he refused to be intimidated by rioters who assaulted police officers, stormed the Capitol and chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” As the dangerous mob approached the Senate Chambers, the Vice President and senators had to be taken away.

The House was also forced to evacuate, which halted the electoral count. How well I remember a sparse group of Capitol Police officers urging us to “Run! Run!” as we made our way to safety, while other overwhelmed Capitol Police fought back the crowd. For hours, we watched on TV as rioters stormed into the Senate Chamber and rummage through our offices.

Finally, the senators were told that it was safe enough for us to return to the Senate, which we were all determined to do so that we could resume the counting of the votes. The drive home that night was very different. Unlike the small number of police guiding our evacuation, FBI tactical teams equipped with riot gear, members of the National Guard and police officers lined our route. Vice President Pence and Congress returned to the Capitol that night and took the final constitutional step before the inauguration of a new president – ​​we counted the votes.

This day reminded us that there is nothing more essential to the survival of a democracy than the orderly transfer of power, and there is nothing more essential to the orderly transfer of power than clear rules for perform it. We should not depend on the fidelity and determination of vice presidents to follow the intent of these rules; the law must be clear about the parameters of the powers of the vice president and consistent with the very limited role defined in the Constitution. Vice President Pence’s actions on January 6 were heroic. But the peaceful transfer of power should not require heroes.

Much debate has recently focused on the foundry ballot papers. Much more attention needs to be paid to the account and certifying of votes. Our democracy depends on it. To prevent subversion of the electoral process, Congress must reform the voter count law. A bipartisan group of 16 senators is working on it.

The ambiguously worded voter count law must be amended to make it absolutely clear that a vice president cannot manipulate or ignore electoral votes while presiding over this joint session of Congress. But other loopholes in the law must also be corrected. For example, the threshold set by law to trigger a challenge to a state’s results is far too low: only one representative and one senator are required to challenge voters in a state. In the past, members on both sides of the aisle have challenged the vote without any real evidence of wrongdoing.

Our group of senators share a vision of drafting laws to ensure the integrity of our elections and public confidence in the results. We want a bill that will be reviewed by committees, debated in the Senate, that will have the support of the two leaders of the Senate and that will be passed by the Senate with 60 votes or more.

However, the more we spread our net, the more difficult it will be to reach a consensus. We must be careful about expanding a reform bill to include provisions that go far beyond fixing the current law, strengthening election security and protecting election officials from threats of violence. Challenging bills that have already been defeated will not get us to the finish line. Our main objective must be to avoid another January 6 by reforming the law on the electoral count. This is the vital goal in itself, our duty to accomplish and a noble mission that should not be derailed by bona fide but ultimately partisan dispositions.

We do not know if we will succeed, but we are trying to solve a serious problem. The senators working on this bill have philosophical, regional and political differences. When we disagree, we try to persuade each other – we cajole, haggle and even argue – but we do so with a common purpose. This is how things are supposed to work in a democracy. Perhaps we could call the process “legitimate political discourse”.

Susan Collins is a Republican Senator from Maine. She leads a bipartisan group of senators who have pledged to reform the voter count law.

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