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OPINION

It’s a moment to praise Mitch McConnell

The Senate Republican leader has thrown his support behind the effort to update the Electoral Count Act of 1887 — and that makes passage of those essential reforms much more likely.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell returned to his office following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. McConnell has thrown his support behind the recent bipartisan effort to update the Electoral Count Act of 1887.Anna Moneymaker/NYT

There are some sentiments you may utter only once in your lifetime.

“I don’t care what they say about grizzly bears. This guy looks friendly — and it’ll be a great selfie!”

“Don’t worry, dude, we can outrun a tornado.”

“I know it’s April, but the lake ice looks thick enough to drive on.”

And then there’s this:

“Good for Mitch McConnell. He’s acting like an actual leader!”

This, mirabile dictu, is a week when that last unlikely assessment can be spoken with considerable precision.

Why? Because the Senate Republican leader has thrown his support behind the effort to update the Electoral Count Act of 1887 — and that makes passage of those essential reforms much more likely.

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“The chaos that came to a head on January 6 of last year certainly underscored the need for an update,” McConnell said Tuesday. “It’s clear the country needs a more predictable path.”

It’s that 19th-century legislation that provided Donald Trump and his team of rogues scheming space to try to subvert the 2020 presidential election. Ambiguity begets rascality, and the arcane language of that antique statute gave louche lawyer John Eastman room to maintain that then Vice President Mike Pence could reject or set aside various states’ certified Electoral College votes. With his legal appeals exhausted, Trump made that cockamamie theory the basis of his plan for an auto-coup to keep himself in office.

Now, let’s be clear. There wasn’t any actual uncertainty regarding the vice president’s role. Everyone but the partisan purblind understood how the process was intended to work. Even Eastman knew that what he was advocating was legally ridiculous. Further, the proper congressional counting of electoral votes had long been respected and carried out by honorable people.

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But in Donald Trump, we had a dishonorable and dishonest president who put his lust for power above our democracy. As we now know, when the responsible members of his team told Trump that the 2020 election was free of result-changing fraud and that he had legitimately lost, Trump turned to a wild-eyed crew of legal bandits for a way to overturn those results.

It’s sad that we as a nation have arrived at a point where we have to vandal-proof our democratic process. But that’s where we are — and that’s why this effort is essential.

Given that the enterprise stands as a necessary rebuke of Trump, it’s good to see that a number of Republican senators are supportive. Now, with McConnell having signed on, its Senate passage is virtually assured.

The Senate proposal does four particularly important things. First, it stipulates that the vice president’s role in the electoral vote count is merely ministerial. That would eliminate any room for arguments of the sort that the Trump auto-coup cabal made in 2020 about the VP’s supposed power to reject or disallow certain slates.

It makes clear that a state’s Electoral College slate must be submitted by its governor unless otherwise specified in state law at the time of the election, thereby eliminating the potential for rival slates of electors and reducing the chances of skullduggery by state legislatures. It also eliminates the “failed election” provision of an 1845 law that rogue state lawmakers might try to use to negate the will of voters.

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And it substantially increases the threshold necessary to trigger a congressional challenge to a particular state’s Electoral College votes, from one member of both the House and Senate to one-fifth of both bodies. That should reduce frivolous challenges. Although Trump’s election-stealing effort stands alone in the modern era, Democrats have in the past registered largely pointless or symbolic objections during the congressional counting of Electoral College votes.

It’s vitally important that this gets done to prevent future political marauders from undertaking similar anti-democratic depredations. In an era where authoritarianism is on the march around the world, the rules must be as unambiguous as possible.

McConnell saw the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol for what it was and properly placed the blame at Trump’s doorstep. Since then, he has largely gone silent on Trump, though unlike craven House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who initially also held Trump responsible, he hasn’t tried to grovel his way back into the former president’s favor.

And now, with Trump continuing to spread the Big Lie of a stolen election and his MAGA movement trying to elevate election deniers into public office, McConnell has endorsed a vitally important effort to safeguard democracy.

So let’s take advantage of this rare opportunity while it avails itself. All together now:

“Good for Mitch McConnell. He’s acting like an actual leader.”


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.