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Collins, King optimistic that presidential elector reform bill will pass this year

Susan Collins, Angus King
Robert F. Bukaty
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, left, and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, chat Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Bath, Maine.

Maine's two U.S. senators said they are optimistic that Congress will finalize a bill to change the presidential electoral counting process before the end of the year in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the chaos and bloodshed that followed the 2020 elections.

But with lawmakers only scheduled to meet for three more weeks, time is running out on the bill and other high-profile measures that would likely face more difficult odds in the incoming, Republican-controlled House.

“It has to pass before the end of the year,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican who is a lead sponsor of the Electoral County Reform Act of 2022. “We cannot leave these issues that are so important unresolved as we begin a presidential election cycle. So for me, it’s a matter of necessity that we reform this archaic law before the end of the year.”

Collins and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia unveiled the bipartisan bill in July after leading months of negotiations with their colleagues. Their goal is to modernize a 135-year-old law whose vagaries and ambiguities have concerned constitutional scholars for generations — and that former President Trump exploited in the lead-up to the deadly January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. The Democratic-controlled House passed a similar but not identical bill earlier this year as well.

The Collins-Manchin bill is now co-sponsored by more than one-third of the Senate and includes both Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as co-sponsors. But Collins acknowledges that time is running out because any unfinished bills die at the end of the session.

“This is a very important piece of work and very important to get done before the end of this year,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent who co-authored an earlier measure to reform the electoral counting process but who now strongly supports the Collins-Manchin bill. “I think after this year it is going to be very difficult because we are in a presidential election year, by definition.”

If approved, the Electoral Count Reform Act of 2022 would require that at least 20 percent of the both the House and the Senate object to presidential electors in order to halt the process. Currently, it only takes one representative and one senator to disrupt the count. Among other changes, the bill also seeks to eliminate the possibility of multiple, competing slates of electors from states – a real prospect during the 2020 election count – by only allowing Congress to consider slates submitted by a governor or one other specified person.

Finally, the bill would make it clear that the vice president's only role is to preside over the process.

Trump and his allies had been pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to toss out electors from key states that had voted for Joe Biden. Pence's refusal infuriated Trump and his ardent supporters, some of whom chanted "Hang Mike Pence" as they broke into and ransacked the Capitol. The former vice president, who is considering his own presidential bid opposite Trump in 2024, recalled the disagreement this week during a lengthy interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep.

"He had a gaggle of outside lawyers that were telling him that as vice president I had unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes to count, which no vice president in American history had ever claimed that authority,” Pence said. “The American presidency belongs to the American people and the American people alone. But disputes over electoral votes under federal law are decided by the elected representatives of the American people in the Congress, and I thought it was important that we work entirely through that process."

Collins said Congress has an obligation to reform the archaic law that she believes directly contributed to the confusion and chaos of January 6.

"We were fortunate that Vice President Pence resisted the pressure that was put on him by President Trump to halt the count on January 6th,” said Collins, who was one of just seven Senate Republicans to join all Democrats in voting to convict Trump for his role leading up to the Jan. 6 riot. “But it's important that we clarify the language of the Electoral Count Act to make clear that the vice president's role is strictly administrative."

King, who has been a prominent voice on the need to reform the process since the turmoil that followed the 2020 elections, said he is also confident that Congress will send the bill to President Biden before the end of the year.

"The bill is a solid, thoughtful, no-nonsense bill that is not partisan, obviously,” King said. “And it's just trying to correct this ancient, confusing law that one scholar characterized as a ticking timebomb in the middle of our democracy. So I'm optimistic."

King also said the bill is timely, but not just because of Trump's recent campaign launch.

"I don't think the fact that the former president has announced changes the matter much,” King said. “I think we need to fix this whoever the nominees are going forward."

Both King and Collins acknowledge that passing the bill would be much harder in the new Congress. Only nine Republicans joined Democrats in supporting a similar bill that passed the House earlier this year. And because unfinished bills die at the end of each session, supporters would likely face an uphill climb getting the same measure through the incoming Republican-controlled chamber.

The House and Senate will also have to resolve a key difference between the two versions. The House bill would require one-third of the membership of both chambers to object to presidential electors versus just 20 percent in the Senate bill. But Collins said that with so little time left in the current session, she hopes the House will go along with the Senate proposal.

"Our bill is far more bipartisan than the House bill and it also has far broader support from outside experts in elections and constitutional scholars,” Collins said.

Congress also has a pile of other high-priority items to resolve before year's end, including a spending plan to avoid a government shutdown and a same-sex marriage bill in which Collins is the lead Republican sponsor.