Jan 5, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Bipartisan Senate group in talks about election reform measure

Sen. Susan Collins is seen walking into the Capitol on Wednesday.

Sen. Susan Collins walks into the Capitol basement Wednesday with fellow Republican Sen. Roger Wicker. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A new bipartisan Senate group is in early discussions about crafting an election reform measure, as the Democrats’ sweeping voting rights proposals continue to run into steep procedural hurdles.

Driving the news: Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) convened a Zoom call late Wednesday afternoon as a cross-section of lawmakers from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) have expressed openness to reforming the outdated bill.

  • A person familiar with the call characterized it as a "wide-ranging discussion of election issues," including the option to update the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to clarify the role the vice president and Congress play in certifying presidential elections.
  • Besides Collins, the participants were Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the person told Axios.

Why it matters: The discussion came on the eve of the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack, the culmination of former President Trump’s efforts to take advantage of ambiguities in the bill to challenge the 2020 election results.

  • In particular, the Electoral Count Act doesn’t specify if the vice president is merely ceremonial or if the VP actually has the power to refuse to certify certain electors, as Axios reported Tuesday.

What we're watching: The White House and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer remain focused exclusively on passing their own voting rights legislation.

  • White House spokesman Andrew Bates told Axios: "The president has been crystal clear that the pending voting rights legislation, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, are essential for protecting the constitutional right to vote, the rule of law and the integrity of our elections against un-American attacks based on the Big Lie."
  • "There is no substitute. Period."
  • President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Georgia next Tuesday to make the case for federal voting rights legislation, the White House announced.

Proponents of reform say the Jan. 6 insurrection made clear the need to close loopholes that could be exploited in the future.

  • Collins told Axios before the meeting: "I would like personally to see the language change, so that it's clear that the vice president is performing just the ministerial role and does not have the authority to change our block counts from states."
  • Kaine, who's been heavily involved in Democrats' voting reform talks, told Axios that a standalone Electoral Count Act bill is "not even 5% of what we need to do on voting, but it would be a good thing."
  • "I do think it needs to be reformed," Shaheen said before the Zoom call. "I don't think that addresses voting rights. I think we should get whatever done we can."

But, but, but: Some Democrats are concerned making changes to the Electoral Count Act would reduce the urgency to pass federal voting rights bills.

  • Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), a key figure in Democrats' voting rights push, said a narrow Electoral Count Act reform bill would be a "distraction" and a "cynical political maneuver by people who are trying to rig the elections in our country."
  • Adam Bozzi, a spokesperson for End Citizens United, told Axios: "This feels like a GOP stall tactic. ... Claiming that they would 'negotiate' on a small part of the bill to slow movement overall is part of their playbook."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to identify Joe Manchin as a Democrat, not a Republican.

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