The bipartisan legislation announced last month by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin (TAUT.Va.), along with an additional eight Republicans and six Democrats, is a critical step toward increasing confidence in elections. The lack of confidence that our election results will be spoken on both the left and the right poses a serious threat to American self-government. The confidence that our representatives are elected by the voice of the people, as provided for in our constitution and laws, is the foundation of the most successful republic in history.
Still, the road to passing election legislation in 2022 is fraught. Many believe the partisan divide in Congress is too big to bridge, especially with midterm elections in November and a busy congressional calendar.
A unique poll suggests a surprising bipartisan consensus that Congress is overcoming the challenges of passing the proposed legislation. This poll is unlike most in that before responding, the more than 3,000 participants spent an hour or more going through a briefing on electoral reforms that most strongly advocate for and against measures included in the bipartisan legislation. The participants are members of the CommonSense American program of the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD). They come from every state. About a quarter are Republicans, a quarter Democrats and 45 percent are independents.
The drafting of the brief that our members reviewed defied the idea that bipartisan legislation is unrealistic. We consulted with a cross-party group of more than 30 leading election experts to ensure the brief was accurate and fairly reflected competing perspectives. We noticed how many proposals easily attract the support of two parties.
The bipartisan agreement between pundits and ordinary Americans is perhaps most striking for Electoral Count Act (ECA) updates that are central to the bipartisan package. The ECA determines how and when states certify presidential election results and send them to Congress. It also determines how Congress counts electoral votes and resolves disputes. The ECA’s tortured, archaic language, passed by Congress in 1887, is challenging to interpret and apply to current circumstances. Efforts by both sides to manipulate its imperfections have increased over the past 20 years. Beginning in the 2000 presidential election, Congressional Democrats have exploited the ECA to object to the last three Republican presidential wins. President Trump and some of his Republican allies then dramatically escalated ECA exploitation into 2020.
The intensified efforts to challenge the results of the presidential election have convinced many Republican and Democratic members of Congress, scientists and election experts that the bill governing vote counting needs to be updated. The threat also convinces ordinary Americans. For example, an overwhelming 90 percent of U.S. CommonSense members rated the brief support, making the existing language even more explicit that the vice president’s responsibilities are ceremonial, with no authority to deny the counting of a state’s electoral votes. or postpone.
Equally remarkable, we find that both sides dramatically underestimate the support of the other party. Democratic members of CommonSense American think only 41 percent of Republican members are in favor of clarifying the role of the vice president. In fact, at 81 percent, the level of actual Republican support is nearly double what Democrats think. Similarly, Republican members think 67 percent of Democratic members support it, while 98 percent do.
There is also strong cross-party support among experts and ordinary Americans for the other proposed ECA reforms. For example, our members agreed with experts on each of the following:
- 80 percent support clarifying existing ECA language that Congress must respect court rulings in ECA disputes.
- 80 percent support the clarification that a state legislator must abide by the election laws it had on Election Day unless a major natural disaster or similar catastrophic event has occurred.
- 75 percent support raising the threshold for objections from one senator and one representative to a quarter of each chamber.
As with the bipartisan Senate group and election experts, the bipartisan support doesn’t stop with ECA updates. For example, our poll finds:
- 81 percent support increasing federal criminal penalties for threatening election workers.
- 68 percent support sharing full transition resources with both candidates if there is a delay in determining the presidential contest winner.
As challenging as bipartisan action is in our bitterly partisan times with hotly contested midterm elections fast approaching, few issues attract more bipartisan support than common sense electoral reforms. No matter how busy the congressional calendar is, no issue is more fundamental than increasing confidence in elections. With the stakes so high and support so broad, Congress should act and act now to build confidence in the elections that define ours as a system of, for, and of the people.
Keith Allred is the executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) and a former professor of negotiation and conflict resolution at Harvard Kennedy School.