The Presidential Election Reform Act, drafted to take a flamethrower to some of the tangled language that governs how Electoral College votes are counted, passed the House on Wednesday with the support of only nine Republicans. (That total included Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., a co-author.)
The Republican opposition was predictable but sad. Because this bill wouldn’t do anything but keep dishonest actors from promoting a deliberate misreading of the Constitution. It wouldn’t shore up voting rights; it wouldn’t protect poll workers. It would merely clear up the convoluted language of 1887’s Electoral Count Act, which former President Donald Trump and his cronies claimed provided Vice President Mike Pence unilateral authority to dismiss certain states’ electoral votes.
The fact that Trump and his supporters cited the Electoral Count Act in their shoddy justifications should be evidence enough that changes are needed to the process.
That was constitutional fan fiction at best. The fact that Trump and his supporters cited the Electoral Count Act in their shoddy justifications should be evidence enough that changes are needed to the process. Instead, what we got from the House GOP on Wednesday is proof that, should the status quo remain in place, blatant calls to overturn an election would at least be considered on a case-by-case basis under a Republican majority.
To be fair, some of the supposed ambiguities that Trump’s lawyers tried to exploit are “ambiguous” only if you’re determined to take Neil Armstrong-on-the-moon leaps of logic. Nothing in the text of the Electoral Count Act allows for the vice president as the president of the Senate to dismiss a state’s electoral votes, but it doesn’t explicitly say the vice president can’t. We can thus consider the revisions the House passed as the “Reverse Air Bud” of electoral vote counting.
If anything, you’d think that if House Republicans really believed Pence could have changed the election results, as Trump has claimed he could have, then they’d be entirely in favor of this bill. Because that would reveal a belief that nothing is stopping Vice President Kamala Harris from tossing out the votes of states Trump (or whoever is the GOP nominee) wins in 2024.
But the votes House Republicans cast Wednesday weren’t about the merits of the bill or the wording of the act or the legitimacy of our elections. Their votes were about making sure that the people who do believe that Pence could have — and should have — installed Trump for a second term don’t turn on them.
You can see that when you look at who among the GOP voted to impeach Trump that second time but against the Presidential Election Reform Act. Only two members fall into that category: Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and David Valadao, R-Calif. Of the 10 House Republicans who decided that maybe Trump’s incitement on Jan. 6, 2021, was a problem, Valadao and Newhouse are the only ones on their districts’ general election ballots this fall.
It’s not that they love the Electoral Count Act as it stands; it’s that they find the politics around changing it untenable.
Valadao and Newhouse managed to hold out against Trump-backed challengers in their primaries, but both competed in “top-two primaries,” and both made it to the general election alongside Democratic opponents. They won out over their GOP challengers by a few thousand votes each, which means they can’t further alienate Trump fans if they want voters in November to return them to Congress.
Despite the tepid arguments House GOP members threw around during their debate Wednesday, few of them likely have problems with the substance of the bill. They know good and well that it’s within Congress’ power to set standards for federal elections, even as they warn about an infringement of states’ rights. It’s not that they love the Electoral Count Act as it stands; it’s that they find the politics around changing it untenable.
Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the Presidential Election Reform Act doesn’t quite match the reforms being hammered out in the Senate, where there just might be enough Republican votes to get past the filibuster. If there are enough votes and the Senate version passes, the House will need to approve that new version, leaving Republicans there with even less of a defense for their position. But who knows — if Newhouse and Valadao lose their races before that happens, then maybe the number of GOP votes in favor of closing a loophole that was really never a loophole will creep up to 11.