Imagine my surprise when, on January 6, 2017, I learned that I had received one electoral vote to become Vice President of the United States — a position for which I was not a candidate — from a “faithless voter” from Washington State.
Four years later, on January 6, 2021, when a violent mob captured the Capitol, I realized my undeserved vote in the Electoral College was not funny. This seemingly innocuous vote was an indication that our system of counting and certifying votes for president and vice president had deep and serious structural problems.
These unfortunate flaws are enshrined in the Electoral Count Act, which directs the conduct of part of the presidential election process enshrined in the Constitution. This 1887 law, vaguely written in the inaccessible language of another era, was intended to restrain Congress, but in practice it had the unintended effect of creating ambiguities that could potentially be used to define the role of Congress and the Vice President in ways to expand. that are contrary to the Constitution.
Despite its flaws, the law had been off-topic for over a century due to the reluctance of the people exercising the serious, but limited, constitutional responsibility of counting the votes. Vice Presidents and Congresses supported the will of the people, even if they didn’t like the outcome.
We saw this, for example, in 1961 and again in 2001, when Vice Presidents Richard Nixon and Al Gore presided over the counting of the electoral votes in a fair and dignified manner, despite losing close presidential elections. Vice President Gore even refused to hear Democratic opponents trying to make him president.
Then came the 2020 election. President Donald Trump and his allies both took advantage of the weaknesses of the law and ignored the language of the Constitution. Mr Trump argued that the vice president could undo 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 on that day cannot be overstated. He took on a determined president who pressured him relentlessly to control the election. And he refused to be intimidated by rioters who attacked police officers, stormed the Capitol and shouted “Hang Mike Pence!” chanted. As the dangerous mob approached the Senate chambers, the vice president and senators had to be led away.
The House was also forced to evacuate, bringing the electoral count to a halt. How well I remember a small group of Capitol cops urging us to “Run! Run!” as we made our way to a safe location as other members of the overwhelmed Capitol Police battled the crowd. For hours we watched on television rioters breaking into the Senate Chamber and searching our desks.
Finally, the senators were told it was safe enough to go back to the room, which we all wanted to do so we could resume the counting of the votes. The walk back that evening was very different. In contrast to the small number of police officers who led our evacuation, FBI tactical teams with riot gear, members of the National Guard, and police officers lined our route. Vice President Pence and Congress returned to the Capitol that evening, completing the final, constitutionally required step for the inauguration of a new president—we counted the votes.
That 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 its implementation. We must not depend on the fidelity and determination of vice presidents to follow the intent of these rules; the law must be crystal clear on the parameters of the vice president’s powers and be consistent with the very limited role enshrined in the constitution. Vice President Pence’s actions on January 6 were heroic. But the peaceful transfer of power does not require heroes.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the to pour of ballot papers. Much more attention should be paid to the to count and certify of votes. Our democracy depends on it. To avoid undermining the electoral process, Congress must reform the Electoral Count Act. A bipartisan group of 16 senators is working to do just that.
The ambiguously worded Electoral Count Act 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 shortcomings in the law also need to be remedied. For example, the law’s threshold for challenging the results of a state is far too low: only one representative and one senator need to object to a state’s voters. In the past, members on both sides of the aisle have challenged the vote without any real evidence of wrongdoing.
Our group of senators shares a vision for legislating to ensure the integrity of our elections and public confidence in the results. We want a bill that will be considered by committees, debated on the Senate floor, get the support of the two Senate leaders, and pass the Senate with 60 or more votes.
However, the wider we cast our net, the more difficult it will be to reach consensus. We should be careful about extending a reform bill to include provisions that go well beyond correcting the current law, strengthening election security and protecting polling stations from threats of violence. Repetition of already rejected bills will not get us to the finish line. Our primary focus should be on avoiding another January 6 by reforming the Electoral Act. That is the essential goal in itself, it is our duty to make it happen, and it is a worthy mission that must not be derailed by good faith, but ultimately partisan provisions.
We don’t know if we will succeed, but we are trying to solve a serious problem. The senators who work on this legislation have philosophical, regional and political differences. When we disagree, we try to convince each other – we flatter, negotiate and even argue – but we do this with a common goal in mind. That’s how it should 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 working to reform the Electoral Count Act.
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