The year 2022 was filled with major events, any one of which would mark it as significant. The Russian invasion of Ukraine. The death of Queen Elizabeth II. The Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. The expected Republican tsunami that ended up more or less a draw. Former president Donald Trump’s ongoing legal troubles (including a damning report and criminal referrals from the House of Representatives’ January 6 Select Committee, the release (finally!) of his tax returns, an impending grand jury report in Georgia regarding his attempt to interfere in the 2020 electoral count, an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department over his post-presidential mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, and a fraud trial in New York set to begin late next year).
Either the war in Ukraine or Trump’s comeuppance could end up as much bigger deals in the months or years to come, but there’s another, wonkier story that may end up being the most significant development for the future of America: the “Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement” section buried in the massive $1.7 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act that President Joe Biden just signed into law.
There’s a reason your lawnmower comes with a warning stating “Do Not Use to Trim Hedges” and the desiccant that comes with your Amazon packaging says “Do Not Eat.” It’s because somewhere, sometime, somehow, someone decided to do just that, and has now made life more complicated for the rest of us. Since the beginning of history, sea lawyers and actual lawyers and weaselly politicians have tried to find loopholes in order to make mischief and/or enrich themselves at the expense of the people.
For good or ill, the U.S. Constitution established the Electoral College as the method by which our presidents and vice presidents are selected. (Let’s set aside the wisdom or folly of the EC for now; suffice to say that, for the foreseeable future, this is the system we are stuck with.) The Constitution, for all its greatness, is infamously skeletal on implementation of the Electoral College. Article II leaves the process largely to the states. The Electoral Count Act of 1887 was an attempt to clear up some of the ambiguities and put some rigor into the process.
This worked reasonably well until 2020, when Republican operatives—and Trump himself—attempted to jigger the process in order to deny Joe Biden his rightful victory. These attempts included, but were not limited to, trying to convince governors, state attorneys general, legislators, poll workers, judges, and even the Vice President, to throw out or modify election results on some thin pretense or other. And let the courts sort it out if they dared. In some cases, the conspirators even went so far as to appoint bogus “alternative” electors, who kabukied their way through a mock process that produced blatantly fraudulent certificates.
At the summit of this mountain of conspiracy was the hope that Vice President Mike Pence—Trump’s most obsequious bootlicker—would simply declare certain state certificates invalid, something he is not Constitutionally empowered to do, and throw the election to Trump (and, by extension, himself). Pence, whether out of some eleventh-hour spinal fortitude, or sensing that such a course might lead, ultimately, to prison and infamy, decided to stick to the script. This rare profile in courage nonetheless resulted in a Trump-incited MAGA riot that defiled the U.S. Capitol building and fueled the Big Lie that Trump actually won the election but was denied victory because of the cowardice of his own VP.
And in the two years since, Republicans have beavered away, with limited success, at putting into place state legislators, attorneys general, etc., who have sworn fealty at the Altar of Trump and promised they would never let a Democratic certification cross the threshold. What to do if some future Republican VP actually did try to throw out EC certificates, or a GOP legislature tried to certify a slate of electors contrary to the popular vote? It’s not clear that existing political, judicial, or social remedies would be enough to stop an attempt to capture a presidential election through specious or cleverly corrupt means.
To remedy this, the current Congress (whose term ends on January 3, 2023) embedded into the gigantic Consolidated Appropriations Act the “Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement” section, which (among other things) tightens the rules on the when and how of electoral counting, and clarifies that the Vice President has a mandatory and purely ceremonial role in opening the envelopes and declaring the count. This should have the effect of nipping in the bud, or tamping down on, shady shenanigans in the future.
Will this cure America of the MAGA cancer? No. Will it absolutely prevent dishonest or power-mad GOP partisans from trying to bend the rules just short of the breaking point in order to ensure Republican control of the federal government? No. But this late-term legislative victory for Biden and the Democrats has made it a whole lot harder for Trump and his ilk to manhandle our electoral system. And in the long run, this might end up being the most important development of 2022.