Congress nears deal to reform how Electoral College votes are counted

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill have agreed on a framework to reform the Electoral Count Act. It governs the way Congress counts and certifies Electoral College votes during the presidential election, and it has become the subject of scrutiny after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Lisa Desjardins joins Judy Woodruff to explain.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill has agreed to a framework to reform the Electoral Count Act. Now, this is the law that governs the way Congress counts and certifies Electoral College votes during a presidential election. And it has become the subject of scrutiny after the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

    For more on all this, I'm joined by our congressional correspondent, Lisa Desjardins.

    So, Lisa, remind us of what this act does, what this issue is all about, and what this group is looking to do.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is the act that goes back to the 1880s, after the tumultuous 1876 election led to all kinds of problems, with different competing slates of delegates and electors.

    This law was put in place to try and have a very clear process for exactly how the Electoral College certification was done. It spells out what Congress' role is, exactly what happens, exactly what was supposed to happen on January 6, what the role of vice president is, all of that.

    But because this particular law, rarely seen or rarely brought up, is murky in some ways, it led to those questions on January 6 and conspiracy theories that could — that it could be changed, and also open the door for objections in Congress itself.

    So let's look at what the situation is now and what this framework of reform would do. Right now, under the Electoral Count Act, in order to trigger a challenge to an electoral count, it just requires one member of the House and one member of the Senate to challenge any particular state's slate of electors.

    What this framework would do is radically changed that to require 20 percent of each chamber must object to that state's slate of electors in order to trigger a challenge. Also now in the Electoral Count Act, it does state that the vice president, as the president of the Senate, really announces the count, has a role. But it's vague. It's not clear exactly what the vice president's limits are.

    Many people — no one's ever had a problem with that before until this past 2020 election. What this would do is, it would clarify, make it very clear that the vice president only has a ceremonial or ministerial role, as some of these folks are saying.

    The agreement here, Judy, also would have some money to help for security for state elections officials, something I know the two of you were just talking about as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For sure.

    And, Lisa, tell us what the timeline is for this because, as you say, right now, what you're seeing is a framework, not legislative language yet.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is fascinating.

    One reason it's taken a little longer on this is because there aren't really any experts on this. No one from the Arthur or Grover Cleveland administrations is still around to help lawmakers figure out how this should work.

    But they — but I was told by one senator and by several offices today that they think they can get text for this ready by August. So, the question is, then, when would there be a vote? There's some politics here, Judy. I believe that we would have to see a vote perhaps after the election itself, one, because Democrats, many of them think that this kind of bill should include voting rights, and they might have a problem with it before the election if it doesn't.

    Then Republicans, on their side, they know this kind of bill may raise some ire from the Trump side of their party. They don't want to do that. So, while this would — could be ready to go before then, could have the support, we may not see a full vote in the Senate for a few months. We will watch it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, as you say, this is not a law that had gotten a great deal of attention before it was taken, I think it's fair to say, for granted.

    Remind us though, why this is something that matters so much.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think your segment just now showed exactly what's going on. There are candidates running right now for Congress who would deny the 2020 election and who would use something perhaps like the Electoral Count Act.

    Now, if you look at this map, this is data from The Washington Post. This shows the primaries up until now. You can see, in all of those states that are red, that's how many Republican nominees for the House, they have won their primary, deny the 2020 win by Joe Biden or question it. These are people who would sit in Congress and under current law would have the right to object to, say, another election if President Trump runs again.

    So this is something that is not just theoretical. This is something that the Electoral Count Act could very well affect, the next election. Also interesting to note Vice President Pence's role, one of his closest advisers, Michael Luttig, also a well-known conservative judge, has been speaking out about this and what was leading up to January 6.

    He spoke to "Frontline" for an upcoming documentary. Here's what he said about the theories going up to January 6.

    Michael Luttig, Former Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal Judge: The plan was to overturn the election through the exploitation of the — of what I have called the institutions of democracy and the instruments and instrumentalities of our democracy.

    There's really — and we know now there's no question about it. They knew exactly what they were doing. And they believed it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, this is the theme, and he will be one of the witnesses at tomorrow's committee hearing for the Select January 6 Committee.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For sure. It doesn't get any more critical than this.

    Lisa Desjardins, we thank you.

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