The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House passes bill to prevent efforts to subvert presidential election results

Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) and Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) attend a hearing of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2001, attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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The House voted Wednesday to pass an electoral reform bill that seeks to prevent presidents from trying to overturn election results through Congress, the first vote on such an effort since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob seeking to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral win.

The bill passed on a 229-203 vote, with just nine Republicans breaking ranks and joining Democrats in supporting the measure. None of those nine Republican lawmakers will be members of Congress next year — either because they lost their primaries or chose to retire.

The Presidential Election Reform Act, written by Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), explicitly cites the Capitol attack as a reason to amend the Electoral Count Act of 1887, “to prevent other future unlawful efforts to overturn Presidential elections and to ensure future peaceful transfers of Presidential power.”

“Legal challenges are not improper, but Donald Trump’s refusal to abide by the rulings of the courts certainly was,” Cheney said Wednesday during House debate on the measure. “In our system of government, elections in the states determine who is the president. Our bill does not change that. But this bill will prevent Congress from illegally choosing the president itself.”

Later, Cheney added, “This bill is a very important and crucial bill to ensure that what happened on January 6 never happens again.”

President Donald Trump had falsely told his supporters that Vice President Mike Pence had the power to reject electoral votes already certified by the states. Pence did not do so — and has repeatedly emphasized that the Constitution provides the vice president with no such authority. But on Jan. 6, many in the pro-Trump mob that overran the Capitol began chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” on the misguided belief that the vice president could have stopped Congress from certifying Biden’s victory.

The Presidential Election Reform Act would clearly reaffirm that the vice president has no role in validating a presidential election beyond acting as a figurehead who oversees the counting process, barring that person from changing the results. It also would expand the threshold necessary for members of both chambers to object to a state’s results, as well as clarify the role governors play in the process. Finally, it would make clear that state legislatures can’t change election rules retroactively to alter the results.

“In Hollywood, there’s always a sequel, often to a very bad movie. We’re headed for a new sequel in 2024, unless we change the 1887 Electoral Count Act,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) said on the House floor.

“We must change the law. It is ancient,” he added. “It’s already been proven by Jan. 6 and the attempted coup then [when people tried] to use that law to install in the presidency a person who was not legitimately elected by the people of America.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the measure “a historic and bipartisan legislative action to safeguard the integrity of future presidential elections,” and then posed a series of questions.

“How could anyone vote against free and fair elections a cornerstone of our Constitution? How could anyone vote against our founders’ vision, placing power in the hands of the people? How could anyone vote against their own constituents allowing radical politicians to rip away their say?”

House Republicans — 139 of whom refused to certify Biden’s win — oppose the measure, with GOP leadership pushing rank and file to vote against it.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said that while the bill narrows “the grounds upon which the count can be interfered with by the Congress … it still allows Congress to invalidate electoral votes so it does not solve the problem,” adding that the measure handles the electoral count in a “clumsy and partisan” way.

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) complained that the “bill tramples on state sovereignty while the Constitution gives states authority to make and interpret their own state laws.”

Cheney and Lofgren are members of the bipartisan House select committee investigating the Capitol insurrection and have delivered sober assessments of the risks of similar future attacks on American democracy and the peaceful transfer of power. The Jan. 6 committee’s next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 28.

In a joint op-ed for the Wall Street Journal on Sunday, Cheney and Lofgren said there remained more to come from the committee about the extent of Trump’s plans to overturn the 2020 presidential election, but they also had “an obligation to recommend legislation to make sure such an attack never happens again.” Trump, they pointed out, has continued to spread baseless claims of widespread election fraud, and pro-Trump candidates in state and local elections around the country have embraced those falsehoods.

“This raises the prospect of another effort to steal a presidential election, perhaps with another attempt to corrupt Congress’s proceeding to tally electoral votes,” Cheney and Lofgren wrote. They added: “Our proposal is intended to preserve the rule of law for all future presidential elections by ensuring that self-interested politicians cannot steal from the people the guarantee that our government derives its power from the consent of the governed.”

The bill advanced out of the House Rules Committee on Tuesday on a 9-3 vote. The Biden administration supports the bill, calling it another step in “critically needed reform of the 135-year-old Electoral Count Act.”

“Americans deserve greater clarity in the process by which their votes will result in the election of a President and Vice President,” the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement Wednesday. “As [the Presidential Election Reform Act] proceeds through the legislative process, the Administration looks forward to working with the Congress to ensure lasting reform consistent with Congress’ constitutional authority to protect voting rights, tally electoral votes, and strengthen our democracy.”

Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have introduced legislation in the Senate, the Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act, that differs from the House on the threshold for members of both chambers to object. Bipartisan support for the Senate bill is growing, with 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans co-sponsors as of Wednesday afternoon.

“We are pleased that bipartisan support continues to grow for these sensible and much-needed reforms to the Electoral Count Act of 1887,” Collins and Manchin said in a joint statement. “Our bill is backed by election law experts and organizations across the ideological spectrum. We will keep working to increase bipartisan support for our legislation that would correct the flaws in this archaic and ambiguous law.”

Marianna Sotomayor and Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.

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