The Senate passes election reform designed to head off another Jan. 6

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (NPR) — Lawmakers have said over and over that they want to prevent another Jan. 6-style attack on the U.S. Capitol from ever happening again.

Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., return to the House chamber after midnight, Jan. 7, 2021, to finish the work of the Electoral College
Legislation passed by the Senate would clarify that the vice president’s role in certifying the Electoral College vote is ceremonial. Here, then-Vice President Mike Pence is seen in the House chamber early on Jan. 7, 2021, to finish the work of the Electoral College after a mob loyal to President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol. [J. Scott Applewhite | AP]
It took almost two years, but on Thursday, as part of a government spending package, the Senate passed the first federal elections legislation to that aim.

The omnibus spending bill includes a section that would reform the Electoral Count Act, a 1887 law that governs the counting of Electoral College votes in Congress.

For years, legal scholars have worried the law was poorly written and in need of clarification, and former President Donald Trump and his allies targeted the law’s ambiguities in their attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

“Imagine that there was a law on the books requiring you to travel by horse and buggy. That is what the Electoral Count Act is like,” Rebecca Green, co-director of the election law program at the College of William & Mary, told NPR this summer.

In the time after voting ended in 2020 and results were certified, Trump and his team argued that then-Vice President Mike Pence had the power to interfere with the counting of electoral votes because the law as it currently stands names the vice president as the presiding officer over the joint session of Congress where those votes are counted.

Legal experts across the political spectrum debunked that reading of the law, but Trump’s pressure campaign still led to the powder keg that erupted at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when chants of “Hang Mike Pence!” rang through the halls of Congress.

The update passed by the Senate would clarify that the vice president’s role in the proceedings is purely ceremonial.

Importantly, the measure also would raise the bar for objecting to a state’s slate of electors. As it stands now, it takes just one member of the House and one senator to challenge a state’s electors and send both chambers into a potentially days-long debate period, even without legitimate concerns.

The new legislation would raise the threshold for an objection to 20% of the members of each chamber.

The spending bill now goes to the House, which in September passed a similar electoral reform measure, with nine Republicans voting with all Democrats in favor.

Legal experts and many lawmakers had said it was imperative to get this certification update done before the next Congress, and especially before the 2024 presidential cycle heats up. A bipartisan group of senators, led by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, spent much of 2022 negotiating the changes.

“We’re holding on by a thread,” said Manchin of the legislation recently, at an event hosted by the National Council on Election Integrity. “By a very, very thin thread of democracy.”

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