• A bipartisan group of senators has unveiled a plan to stop Trump-style sabotage in 2024. 
  • The bills would clarify and modernize centuries-old laws governing presidential elections. 
  • Here's what the senators' proposals would do. 

A group of senators has unveiled a long-awaited bipartisan plan to prevent a future Trump-style coup attempt in 2024. 

The bipartisan group, led by GOP Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, released summaries of two bills on Wednesday that would shore up the laws governing presidential elections to safeguard American democracy against efforts to overturn presidential elections. 

The senators proposed some 21st-century upgrades to the Electoral Count of 1887, the once-obscure 19th-century law governing the process of counting Electoral College votes in a joint session of Congress. While the law has held up decently well since then, scholars have long criticized the ECA's language as vague and contradictory, saying it opens the door to partisan exploitation.  

That law — and the entire process governing presidential elections and transitions — came into sharp focus during President Donald Trump's election sabotage efforts leading up to and on January 6, 2021. These attempts are now the subject of the House January 6 committee's hearings.

After failing to overturn his election loss at the state level, Trump and his allies marshaled hundreds of members of Congress to object to counting slates of electoral votes for President Joe Biden at the January 6 joint session. Trump and legal scholar John Eastman also aggressively pressured Vice President Mike Pence to disregard the ECA and unilaterally "send back" slates of Biden electors. 

Pence refused to do so, and Biden was eventually affirmed as the winner. But the tumultuous two months between the election and January 6 revealed numerous vulnerabilities in a system ripe for exploitation. The group of senators is endeavoring to address these weaknesses before the next presidential election.

Here's how the two bills would make a coup much harder: 

The Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act:

  • Makes clear that the vice president's role is ministerial: The ECA, as is, doesn't give the vice president power to singularly reject presidential electors or "send back" slates to state legislatures, as Trump and Eastman suggested. The Senate bill goes further by clearing up the ECA's antiquated and vague language to clarify that the vice president's role overseeing the count is only ceremonial. 
  • Raises the threshold for objections to electoral votes: Currently, it takes just one House member and one senator to object to counting a state's slate of electors, which triggers two hours of debate per objection. The hours that Congress spent debating objections to Arizona and Pennsylvania's electors gave rioters more time to mount their siege on the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The senators' proposal would require 20% of the House and Senate to raise an objection and trigger debate. 
  • Gets rid of a "failed election" loophole: The legislation eliminates an antiquated provision of federal law that allows state legislatures to appoint presidential electors if a state "fails" to make a choice on Election Day. Experts say the provision was intended to accommodate states who held runoffs for presidential elections, but the meaning of a "failed" election has never been tested in court and could be abused in the future.  
  • Thwarts fake slates of "alternate" electors: In seven states that voted for Biden, groups of Trump supporters, including many state and local GOP officials, designated themselves alternate electors for Trump. Those fake slates of electors held no legal weight whatsoever in the election process. But the senators' bill would designate the state's governor as the sole official responsible for submitting a certificate of electors (unless otherwise specified), to make it even harder for losing candidates' supporters to submit falsified electoral slates. 
  • Updates the Presidential Transition Act of 1963: The bill tweaks the 1960s-era law to allow multiple candidates to access funds and resources for their presidential transition in case of a contested or disputed election. The 9/11 Commission report found that the protracted election dispute between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 delayed the transition and left the US' national security apparatus less prepared. 

The Enhanced Election Security and Protection Act:

  • Enhances criminal penalties for threatening election workers: The legislation doubles the federal punishment for threatening election workers, poll watchers, and political candidates from a maximum of one to a maximum of two years in prison. 
  • Addresses mail voting: The bill tasks the US Postal Service with cultivating new standards for handling mail-in ballots. Mail voting has become an increasingly popular way for voters to cast their ballots over the last several years, and the practice skyrocketed in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Reauthorizes the EAC: The bill formally reauthorizes the Election Assistance Commission and orders the agency to include cybersecurity testing in its certification of voting systems. 
  • Protects election records: The bill reiterates that electronic election records must be properly preserved, and beefs up criminal penalties for destroying or tampering with voting systems and electronic election records. 

Collins is hopeful that both pieces of legislation will earn 60 votes in the Senate, which is also preoccupied with judicial nominations and a bipartisan semiconductor competitiveness bill. From there, the legislation will go the House of Representatives. 

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