A bipartisan bill that overhauls a century-old election law may not be perfect, but doing nothing after the 2020 election could be far worse, senators heard Wednesday.
“We were all there on Jan. 6 — that happened, that was for real. It was not a visit by friends from back home,” Sen. Joe Manchin III said at a hearing of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
The West Virginia Democrat, who testified with GOP Maine Sen. Susan Collins and a group of experts, said the 2021 attack on the Capitol inspired their bipartisan overhaul of a 135-year-old law that advisers to President Donald Trump tried to exploit after he lost in 2020.
“It took the violent breach of the Capitol on Jan. 6 to really shine a spotlight on how urgent the need for reform was,” Collins said to the panel.
Collins and Manchin helped lead a group of more than a dozen senators who produced a bill that seeks to shore up provisions related to the presidential transition and the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which governs the acceptance of presidential votes.
Manchin indicated that he may be open to some tweaks to the bill, but underscored the importance of passage even if some still believe more changes are needed.
“While I will be among the first to acknowledge that the bill is not perfect, it represents many months of hard work and compromise and would serve as a tremendous improvement over the current ECA,” Manchin said.
The experts Wednesday said technical corrections and clarifying language were needed in the case of several provisions, including one that removes an 1845 law that allowed state legislatures to declare a “failed election.” But most were in agreement that the bill would close some of the biggest holes Trump and his advisers explored as he clung to power in 2020.
That includes Trump’s advisers’ suggestion that Vice President Mike Pence should disregard electors from states when Congress met on Jan. 6, 2021.
Pence ultimately did not go along with the plan and was sought by Capitol rioters, who called for his hanging and erected a gallows near the building.
The bill clarifies the vice president’s role as “ministerial” and raises the threshold for objecting to a state’s Electoral College votes from a single member of each chamber to one-fifth of both the House and Senate.
“We should not risk another presidential election cycle under current law. And the pathway to this reform is now clearly illuminated,” said written testimony from Bob Bauer, a law professor at New York University.
Congress can’t address every issue that may arise, he said. But “if it adopts the architecture for this reform of the kind now before the committee, Congress will have accomplished a great deal.”
Though some Democrats on the panel and witnesses expressed disappointment that the bill leaves out sought-after voting rights provisions that Republicans previously blocked, the two-hour hearing stayed positive.
Chairwoman Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., gave senators more time to speak. “We’re all in a good mood here today,” she said. And Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, a member of the bipartisan group that crafted the bill, joked that he wouldn’t show off his ECA “gang tats.” That came after he encouraged more bipartisan “gangs” to craft legislation, and was reminded by another member that the “gangs” parlance is out, while the phrase “bipartisan groups” is in.
Though the senators were collegial, the testimony was serious.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, also a member of the bipartisan group, underscored the importance of getting legislation enacted by year’s end, when party control could flip in the House or Senate.
“As soon as we turn the corner into January, we’re into another lengthy two-year presidential election,” the West Virginia Republican said. “We need to button this up.”
It’s not clear whether the bill would be marked up in Rules or go directly to the Senate floor.
After the bill was released in July, Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif, and Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack that they serve on was also considering fixes to the ECA, but their bill has not yet been released.
The Senate bipartisan group led by Manchin and Collins produced two bills — the ECA overhaul and a bill that deals with other election-related matters like the Postal Service and federal penalties for voting-related interference.
The group split the topics in part because some will be taken up by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
That package would increase penalties for crimes that include intimidating or threatening elections officials or poll watchers, tampering with voting systems, and stealing or destroying elections records. It also includes provisions to improve mail-in processes and how the Postal Service handles election mail. It also reauthorizes the Election Assistance Commission, an independent agency that helps states with security and administering federal elections.
Homeland Security Chairman Gary Peters said last week that discussions about a hearing are ongoing, but no announcement is expected until after the Senate’s summer break.
“We’ll get back in September,” the Michigan Democrat said last week. “Clearly it will be an item that we’re going to pay a lot of attention to.”