U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy believes attempts to overturn the 2024 presidential election will be more “organized” and “sophisticated” than they were in 2020, which is why he joined the bipartisan effort to ensure a more peaceful transfer of power between presidents.
Murphy is one of 16 senators who worked together to craft compromise legislation reforming the centuries-old Electoral Count Act, aimed at preventing future interference in certifying election results.
In an interview Thursday, Murphy said he is hopeful there will be enough Republican support in the Senate to pass the compromise bill.
The two bills, which were introduced Wednesday, cover a wide range of protections aiming to make it more difficult to challenge electors and clarify the role of the vice president during the congressional certification of the results – two issues that arose following the 2020 election when former President Donald Trump and his allies pressured Vice President Mike Pence to reject the results showing a Joe Biden victory.
Those efforts ultimately failed, but not before a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, putting the vice president and lawmakers in danger. A House select committee is currently investigating the attack, what led up to it and the aftermath, and is holding its eighth public hearing on Thursday night.
Murphy said his involvement in the group stemmed from his fear of potential threats that states may pose to the 2024 presidential election. The Supreme Court is set to hear a case in the fall that could give state legislatures greater control over elections.
The bipartisan coalition is led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and includes an additional seven Republicans and seven Democrats.
“In 2024, the real threat is going to come from states who may throw out the election results and appoint their own electors,” Murphy said. “My chief goal was to make sure there are new protections in the Electoral Count Act to guard against bad state actors who throw out our election results.”
Like most legislation coming before a split 50-50 Senate, Democrats weren’t able to get everything they wanted. The party tried passing a much larger voting rights bill over the past year, which included restoring parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but it stalled in the Senate because of GOP objections. Reforming the Electoral Count Act was one area of elections reform that many in both parties could get behind, albeit with a much narrower focus.
Murphy and some Democrats in the group tried to get more “modest” provisions related to the Voting Rights Act included in the new legislation. One of those included “clarifying” Section 2, which prohibits voting practices and laws from discriminating against voters based on race.
“I know there’s a lot of disappointment there, for good reason, that this bill doesn’t go further,” Murphy said, referring to what he’s heard from voting rights advocates. “Early in the process, there was some hope that we could include some improvements to the Voting Rights Act in this bill, and we were not able to get agreement on those provisions.”
“I and others thought it was still worthwhile to move forward with a narrow reform of the Electoral Count Act,” he added.
Both pieces of the new legislation propose a fairly lengthy list of reforms.
The first bill, among other things, establishes an “expedited judicial review” to deal with candidate legal challenges and affirms that the vice president’s role is merely ceremonial in overseeing Congress’ certification process.
It also includes a provision that would raise the threshold for objecting to a state’s election results by requiring one-fifth of lawmakers in both chambers to do so. Currently, it takes one member in the House and Senate to raise an objection.
The other bill seeks to boost security for poll workers, candidates and voters who face threats of intimidation or violence, raising the penalty to a maximum of two years in prison. It also reauthorizes the independent Election Assistance Commission for five years and reaffirms that electronic election records must be preserved.
The proposed reforms are likely the only election-style legislation that can get through Congress, especially in a divided Senate where a certain amount of Republican support is needed. But Murphy said he feels “pretty confident” they’ll get the necessary votes to pass it.
There are already eight GOP senators on board, which means they only need two more Republican votes if all 50 Democrats are supportive. Most legislation needs to reach the 60-vote threshold to overcome a potential filibuster.
Other than the Republicans in the bipartisan group, others in the GOP have expressed an openness to the bill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, indicated again on Wednesday that he could support it, saying at a press conference that the 1887 law “does need to be fixed” and that he’s been in “constant contact” with Collins, the lead GOP negotiator.
It’s still unclear how soon the Senate will move on the legislation, especially with the month-long August recess approaching and a number of other high-priority bills on deck, but Murphy said lawmakers need to get it done before the end of the year. Regardless of which party wins control of the House and Senate in November, Democrats will still control Congress through at least early January.
As Congress seeks to streamline the federal certification process, states have been enacting bills that either strengthen or limit voting rights.
For a blue state, Connecticut has some of the more restrictive state voting laws in the country, though it eased them during the COVID-19 pandemic. Connecticut is one of 15 states that require an excuse to vote by absentee ballot. And it is one of four states that don’t allow in-person early voting. The state, however, offers Election Day voter registration.
But Connecticut has recently sought to broaden voter access. In April, Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law a bill expanding who is eligible for absentee voting. But there would need to be a constitutional amendment to make larger changes to how the state conducts its elections.
“It is admittedly a little embarrassing to be on the front lines of pushing other states to keep their mail-in systems and their early-voting systems when Connecticut doesn’t have one to start,” Murphy said. “We backdoored our way into a mail-in system during the pandemic for emergency reasons.”
Murphy and others acknowledge the federal legislation isn’t perfect and it’ll take the cooperation of everyone to prevent another Jan. 6.
Election experts in Connecticut believe the compromise bills are a step in the right direction, though they argue that more might need be done depending on what comes out of the rest of the Jan. 6 investigations.
“As we continue to learn more about the events that unfolded both on that day and leading up to that day through either the congressional investigation or the DOJ investigation, Congress might have to come back to the drawing board and figure out other ways to also improve it,” said Gayle Alberda, a political science professor at Fairfield University.
But it looks like reforming the 1887 law might not be the only suggestion coming out of Congress. Two members on the Jan. 6 committee – Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, released a joint statement saying they’re considering “legislative recommendations,” noting that it will “include a bipartisan approach to the Electoral Count Act.”
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.