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McConnell backs effort to overhaul electoral vote count law

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walked to the Senate subway at the US Capitol in Washington on Jan. 19, 2022.SARAHBETH MANEY/NYT

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is backing efforts to rework a law on certifying electoral votes as a bipartisan group of senators considers changes aimed at preventing maneuvers deployed by some Republicans last year to challenge the 2020 election results.

McConnell told reporters the process for counting Electoral College votes that certified President Joe Biden’s victory over former President Donald Trump needs changes, giving further weight to the nascent talks to alter the nearly 150-year-old law.

McConnell did not comment on specific aspects he’d support, but his comments Thursday come in the wake of attempts by Trump’s backers in Congress to contest the presidential election outcome and just a day after Senate Republicans blocked passage of a much more sweeping voting-rights bill drawn up by Democrats.

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“I just encourage the discussion because I think it clearly it’s flawed, which is directly related to what happened in January,” McConnell said, referring to a bid by Trump and his supporters to throw out Electoral College votes from some states. “So and we ought to be able to figure out a bipartisan way to fix it.

Negotiators want to clarify that the role of the vice president is limited and largely ceremonial, following Trump’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to reject the votes that gave Biden the presidency.

Two senators helping to lead the talks — Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia — on Thursday said about a half-dozen other lawmakers are participating, and they will continue negotiations while senators are out of town next week.

“I’m very encouraged at the amount of interest that there is on both sides of the aisle,” Collins said.

Collins supports clarifying the vice president’s role and also wants to prevent sitting members of the House and Senate from challenging a state’s electoral votes simply by having one House member and one senator do so.

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On Jan. 6, Republicans in both chambers challenged electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania, with the Senate debating the Arizona challenge just as a mob of Trump loyalists stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Manchin said lawmakers are also discussing tough penalties for anyone who threatens or assaults poll workers or state or local election officials.

“If you accost, if you threaten anyone at the polls, you will be dealt with the harshest penalties,” Manchin said.

Another senator taking part in the negotiations, independent Angus King of Maine, plans to introduce legislation that establishes a limited role for the vice president and members of Congress, and makes clear that states are primarily responsible for resolving post-election disputes. His legislation also revises procedures for state officials to transmit lists of electors and electoral votes to the federal level, according to an outline from his office.

The legislation envisioned by the negotiators doesn’t go as far as the bill that failed on the Senate floor on Wednesday. Democratic leaders called that bill an appropriate response to the aftermath of the 2020 elections.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has dismissed the effort to overhaul the Electoral Count Act as a meager and ineffective approach.

Democrats say their legislation would help counter new laws passed by GOP-led legislatures in 2021 that critics say restrict voting access for minorities and other Democratic-leaning voters, largely in the name of preventing future fraud that wasn’t prevalent in 2020 despite Trump’s claims.

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That legislation, which appears now to be dead, included provisions creating an automatic voter registration system through each state’s motor vehicle agency, making Election Day a public holiday, providing voters with at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections, and restoring the Justice Department’s power to give pre-clearances to some states before they change their election laws.