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1 Republican argues for a narrower approach to changing a 19th century voting law


Is there any way for election reforms to pass the Senate? A Democratic-led voting bill failed last week, blocked by two Democrats and unanimous Republican opposition, but some Republicans maintain they might support narrower changes. They reject federal standards for how Americans vote, but say they might accept reforms to what happens after a vote.

Zach Wamp, a former Republican congressman from Tennessee, supports the change from his perch in a group called Issue One. He wants to address a delusion that motivated the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

ZACH WAMP: Many people were led to believe in 2020 that the Congress and the vice president could overturn the results.

INSKEEP: Legally, Congress could not. But Wamp would like to strengthen the law to make that more clear.

WAMP: The only time under the Constitution that the Congress is supposed to be able to object is if, under the Electoral Count Act of 1887, if the votes by the Electoral College were not regularly given. Now, that's archaic language in that bill.

INSKEEP: The old law grew out of a disputed election after the Civil War. Zach Wamp would like to update it to withstand a new era of bogus objections to election results.

WAMP: This is a historical tradition that we accept the results of the election, and the loser actually accepts the results as well. But we're now in a rancid political environment where either party is totally capable of not accepting the results and potentially creating such controversy, unless you clarify the law as to what the role is, where the Congress could try to overturn the election.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk this through for a moment. It seems to me that, on one level, the law is clear. Vice President Pence, who was presiding over the joint session of Congress, looked into this. Constitutional scholars looked into this. It obviously was simply a lie that Congress had the authority to somehow overturn the will of the people and change the results of the election. Why would you need to clarify the law when it already was clear to the scholars who looked at it at the time?

WAMP: Well, there were certain members of the United States Senate who used the terms regularly given to say that there were election disputes in states like Wisconsin, and therefore it wasn't regularly given. Because that's the original statute, which is - again, that's language from 135 years ago. Regularly given then meant that maybe somebody in the Electoral College was held at gunpoint or they were bribed. We actually have to clarify the law to say that unless the Electoral College somewhere in this country was actually disrupted by something like that - like somebody was held at gunpoint before they submitted their results - then all the role is for the Congress is to count the votes.

INSKEEP: You want to make it very clear to any potential future lawmaker, you can't listen to talk radio about this, you can't listen to any random conspiracy theorist on a website, or you can't listen to someone who wants to overturn an election. You have to go with the will of the people, as it was expressed, state by state.

WAMP: That's exactly right, especially if all 50 states did not object to the certification of the Electoral College three weeks prior. And that's what happened in 2020.

INSKEEP: Do you face a special challenge here because you are dealing with a segment of the population driven by a large segment of media who, regardless of what the law says, are going to live in a fantasy and tell you that the law says what they want it to say?

WAMP: Yeah, that's one of the problems. Misinformation in the modern age is maybe the greatest threat that we face in this country, and we've seen it more and more in the last 20 years as our country has become more and more tribal. And that's the risk. That's the danger for the whole nation, is if we get to a place, like in 2024 - if it's worse than 2020, then confidence in the peaceful transfer of power will erode. And I just got to tell you, that's when this experiment known as the American republic, can come to an end. It can come unraveled if we don't have confidence in elections. What we're trying to do, in a bipartisan way, is put the country above any partisan advantage today so that we can carry out free and fair elections every two years and four years.

INSKEEP: I'm glad that you said any partisan advantage. Democrats are pretty firmly convinced that in dozens of states in the past year, Republicans have changed the rules to tilt the playing field in their direction. Why wouldn't you do something about that?

WAMP: Well, because we can't federalize elections. And frankly, the state of Georgia has the ability, with their legislature and their governor, to do the right thing. And they changed their laws - and I would say the vast majority of the changes they made actually were seen by the bipartisan analyst as improvements to the current system. In fact, there's a national bipartisan agreement on certain things that need to be done. And Georgia's one of the states that comes completely in compliance with these things like a certain period of time for early voting. The only thing in Georgia that people complained about was they wanted some legislative supervision over the independent election administrators. And, you know, we think they need to be left independent.

INSKEEP: OK, we need to pause this interview with Zach Wamp for a moment because Georgia's law is so intensely debated. It is one of the states where Republicans changed election rules in the past year. Georgia's measure, as finally passed, has many provisions. Some of them expand voter access, while others do raise the barriers to voting, like limiting ballot drop boxes or toughening ID rules for absentee and mail-in ballots.

Zach Wamp's main concern is not any of that. His worry about Georgia is partisan officials overturning an election result after the votes are cast, which happens to be the same thing that he wants to prevent at the federal level. Here's the rest of our conversation.

Let me also ask about your party. You pointed out that you may well have Mitch McConnell on board and plenty of Republicans in the Senate on board with the idea of reforming the laws that apply to how the votes are counted after people vote, at least that much reform. Are you also receiving blowback from your party for touching this issue at all in this way?

WAMP: Well, sure. I mean, our party is divided. You know, you have one faction that still wants to look back and say that something was terribly wrong in 2020. And then you have other people, even like Sean Hannity, saying this is not a good narrative to keep talking about. We need to talk about what's going on right now with inflation and the economy and people struggling. And so the party is divided. But, you know, again, patriots will rise above these moments and do what's best for the country. I'll guarantee you those that have fought for these privileges of voting would want us to do no less.

INSKEEP: Zach Wamp is a former Republican congressman from Tennessee and the co-chairman of the ReFormers Caucus at Issue One. Mr. Wamp, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

WAMP: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF U-ZHAAN'S "CITY CREATURES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.