The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP is quietly ‘Trump-proofing’ our system behind his back

Former president Donald Trump. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
4 min

Nobody tell Donald Trump, but Republicans in the Senate appear poised to join Democrats in protecting our democracy from exactly the election subversion he attempted in 2020 — and would surely attempt again in 2024 if given the chance.

The omnibus spending bill has been released, and buried inside it are provisions that would reform the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which governs how Congress counts presidential electors. Trump’s effort to subvert his presidential reelection loss exploited many weaknesses in the ECA that would be fixed if the omnibus passes, as expected.

Strikingly, all this is happening with little noise from right-wing media or MAGA-loyal lawmakers. A bipartisan group of senators negotiated these reforms for months with the support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and they will likely be backed by many or even most GOP senators. Trump himself has been surprisingly mute.

Yet the fact remains: GOP senators who support these ECA reforms are implicitly acknowledging the ugliest realities of what Trump attempted in 2020. They are acknowledging the true nature of the threat that Trump or an imitator might pose in 2024.

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Just about every main ECA reform in the omnibus responds directly to what Trump did. It would clarify that the vice president’s role in counting electors is ceremonial. (Trump pressured his vice president to halt the count.) It would raise the threshold for Congress to nullify legitimate electors. (Trump got dozens of Republicans to object to Joe Biden’s electors.)

Reform would also combat state-level subversion. Trump pressured GOP state legislators to appoint sham electors for himself, so reform would essentially require governors to certify electors in keeping with state popular vote outcomes. It would create new avenues to legally challenge fraudulent electors and require Congress to count electors that are validated by the courts.

It is often said that reformers must avoid fighting the last war. But these reforms also fight the next one. If a GOP state legislature appoints a losing candidate’s electors in 2024, and the GOP-controlled House counts them, under current law that could produce a stolen election or serious crisis. ECA reform will make that much harder to pull off. MSNBC’s Ari Melber has described the need to legislatively “Trump-proof” our system, and here the description is apt.

Why is all this happening? One reason: This is an easy way for Republicans to do something about the Trump threat. It’s highly technical and doesn’t require direct condemnation of Trump himself. Attaching reform to the omnibus avoids a stand-alone vote on it, which could subject Republicans supporting it to more attacks.

Republicans also have a way to explain it to voters. In a key tell, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) argued in the Louisville Courier Journal this week that reform would disarm the secret liberal plot to dismantle the electoral college, which would be easier to do (he claimed) if liberals can show the electoral count is prone to exploitation.

In short, Republicans can argue that ECA reform will Own The Libs. Similarly, in coming days you will hear Republicans insist that it will prevent Vice President Harris from subverting the next electoral count and helping steal the 2024 election from Republicans.

Republicans can also plausibly cite self-interest here. Reform will make it less likely that a rerun of Trump’s coup is attempted, which means Republicans (on the state or federal level) are unlikely to face pressure to help steal a future election. It helps in this regard that many Republicans who ran on an explicit willingness to nullify future losses have been defeated.

No one should confuse this with a full-scale outbreak of pro-democracy sentiment among Republicans. Most resolutely support making voting harder, and many are actively working to sabotage a full national reckoning with Trump’s insurrection and widespread GOP support for it.

Still, something of a split screen is now discernible. On one screen, House Republicans are widely dismissing the news that the House select committee examining Trump’s insurrection is recommending criminal charges. They are gearing up to smear the committee’s report, which will document his coup in damning detail.

On the other screen, many Senate Republicans are quietly preparing to support reforms that functionally acknowledge the grave nature of just about every key aspect of Trump’s coup plot. They are implicitly acknowledging that the MAGA movement would do this all over again, and that pathways to this outcome must be choked off.

In effect, Senate Republicans are poised to join Democrats in Trump-proofing our elections behind his back. It’s sobering that this is happening at the very last second, with insurrectionist Republicans set to seize control of the House, but at least it appears close to getting done.