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Senate Bill Aims to Stop Future Attempts to Thwart Elections

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(Bloomberg) -- A group of Democratic and Republican senators say they have agreed on legislation aimed at preventing a repeat of the efforts last year by former President Donald Trump and his allies to throw out Electoral College votes and overturn the 2020 election.

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Legislation drafted by GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia alters the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to make clear that the vice president has only a ministerial role in certifying presidential election results. It also raises the threshold for members of Congress to object to a state’s presidential election results to 20% of lawmakers in each chamber, instead of just one lawmaker under current practice.

The two senators also unveiled a separate measure that would increase penalties for individuals who threaten or intimidate election officials and poll workers, and to improve handling of mail-in ballots.

“Through numerous meetings and debates among our colleagues as well as conversations with a wide variety of election experts and legal scholars, we have developed legislation that establishes clear guidelines for our system of certifying and counting electoral votes for President and Vice President,” Manchin, Collins and the other senators said in a joint statement. “We urge our colleagues in both parties to support these simple, commonsense reforms.”

The legislation was the result of months of negotiations, and is being released as a House select panel probing the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters is planning to hold on Thursday the last in a series of televised hearings.

Trump has criticized former Vice President Mike Pence for refusing to reject Electoral College results in the 2020 election when Congress convened to certify the count. As the mob of Trump loyalists were beginning to storm the Capitol, Republicans in both chambers challenged electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania.

The proposed legislation would make a number of other changes to the Electoral Count Act. Among other things, it would establish that governors in most states would be responsible for submitting their state’s electors to Congress, a move designed to prevent multiple state officials from sending in competing slates. It allows for expedited court review of some claims related to electors that can only be advanced by aggrieved presidential candidates.

It also would change federal law to ensure that state legislatures can’t override the popular vote in their states by declaring a “failed election,” an ability that now exists under an archaic 1845 law.

The bill also aims to clear ambiguities during presidential transition periods to ensure funds for an incoming president and vice president are immediately available.

During President Joe Biden’s transition into power after the 2020 election, the General Services Administration, led by a Trump appointee, slow-walked signing a document to release critical funds and grant formal access to government officials. Normally, the agency fills out the paperwork after an election is called.

The bill would allow more than one candidate to receive funds when “the outcome of the election is reasonably in doubt,” according to a summary of the bill, removing the agency’s role from essentially deciding who won the election altogether. After a winner becomes clear, resources would be limited to that candidate.

The second bill aims to improve some election procedures to enhance security of election officials, records, and mail-in ballots.

It would double the fines imposed on people who threaten or intimidate poll workers, poll watchers, candidates and other officials. It would double jail time to up to two years for those individuals.

The bill would also reauthorize the Election Assistance Commission, a small agency that helps states with voting processes. The agency issues grants to states, offers suggestions and best practices to state election officials. Established in 2002, authorization for the commission expired in 2005. The bill would reauthorize it for five years and require it to conduct cybersecurity testing and to establish a certification process for voting systems.

Fifteen senators have signed onto both bills, including Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Todd Young of Indiana, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

The effort got a boost in January when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Electoral Count Act “is flawed and does need to be fixed,” although he was non-committal on the specifics of what has been under discussion. On Tuesday, he stopped short of endorsing the emerging legislation, but told reporters he is “sympathetic” to what Collins has worked on and that he has been in frequent contact with her during negotiations.

Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican leader, said this week that he anticipates a narrowly tailored bill like the one released today could pick up GOP support.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader, said he’s hopeful the legislation can get a vote on the Senate floor this year.

“I want to do it as soon as possible.” Durbin said on Tuesday.

(Updates with detail on second measure in 12th-14th paragraphs.)

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