Colorado voters to decide whether to pull state out of national popular vote effort

State lawmakers decided last year that Colorado should join 14 other states and Washington, D.C., in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which pledges their Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who gets the most raw votes nationwide.

On Nov. 3, Coloradans will get the chance to affirm or reject that decision when they vote on Proposition 113, which was put on the ballot by opponents of the movement.

A “yes” vote keeps the state in the compact, while a “no” vote maintains the system Colorado has used for decades to choose a president, in which the candidate with the most statewide support gets its nine Electoral College votes.

Forty-eight states allocate their electoral votes for president on this winner-take-all basis.

“The candidate who gets the most votes in Colorado should get Colorado’s votes for president,” said Frank McNulty, a former Republican state House speaker who serves as an advisor to anti-Prop 113 group Protect Colorado’s Vote. “If 113 passes, there would be no reason for a candidate to come to Colorado anymore — we would lose our clout and our importance on national policy issues.”

But backers of the measure say Colorado and dozens of other states are already largely ignored under the current Electoral College map: Recent presidential campaigns have effectively focused on a handful of competitive swing states — like Florida and Ohio — that aren’t reliably Republican or Democratic.

“We want to make sure presidential candidates think about people across the country, and what they think — not just voters in Pennsylvania,” said Democratic state Sen. Michael Foote, who supports the advocacy group Yes on Prop 113. “The national popular vote is a way to make sure our president gets elected on the principle of one person, one vote.”

Even if voters pass Prop 113, nothing would change for a while. Right now, the 15 states — including Colorado — that have enacted laws embracing the national popular vote account for 196 electoral votes. The compact won’t take effect until it controls 270 votes, the number needed to prevail in the Electoral College.

But Foote feels the movement is picking up steam, especially after Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes in 2016 but won the White House in the Electoral College. Since that election, five states joined the compact.

“There is a path to 270 (electoral votes) by 2024,” Foote said. “If you have some bigger states come on board, it gets pretty close.”

Long time coming

The national popular vote movement has been on a slow simmer for nearly a decade and a half, having launched in 2006. Maryland was the first state to join the compact in 2007. Colorado made early attempts at getting onboard, with bills introduced but failing in the state legislature in 2006, 2007 and 2009.

The push for a popular vote for president bubbled up in the years following George W. Bush’s 2000 defeat of Al Gore, a historically close presidential election whose outcome had to be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even though Gore beat Bush in the popular vote by more than half a million ballots, he lost the electoral math.

The nation has had three other elections, all in the 1800s, in which the candidate earning fewer votes nationwide ultimately won the White House in the Electoral College.

Karen Sheek, president of the League of Women Voters of Colorado, said the national popular vote is “an idea whose time has come.” Under the current system, she said, the more than 1.2 million Coloradans who voted for Trump in 2016 cast votes that were “thrown out because Trump did not receive a single Colorado electoral vote.”

Conversely, Sheek said, nearly 1.4 million Clinton supporters in Wisconsin saw their votes wasted after her campaign came up short — by less than 1% — of Trump’s tally in the state.

“Every four years we cast a vote for the president of the United States, and every four years, thousands of voters see their vote for president discarded because they didn’t vote with the majority in their state,” Sheek said. “The NPV will ensure that every vote cast for president in my community will be counted, regardless of which candidate receives the majority of votes in the state.”

But opponents of Prop 113 say that’s not how the situation will play out on the ground. Rose Pugliese, a Mesa County commissioner, said presidential candidates under a national popular vote system will go where the votes are — namely big cities in populous states.

With Colorado containing less than 2% of the country’s population, the state will be flyover turf on a candidate’s itinerary, she said.

“There’s just not enough people to make Colorado relevant,” said Pugliese, a Republican who is helping spearhead the effort to overturn the General Assembly’s 2019 bill.

She pointed out that Nevada’s governor, a Democrat, vetoed that state’s attempt to join the compact last year. Gov. Steve Sisolak said then that a national popular vote “could diminish the role of smaller states like Nevada in national electoral contests and force Nevada’s electors to side with whoever wins the nationwide popular vote, rather than the candidate Nevadans choose.”

While the fight over the national popular vote is generally falling along partisan lines, with Republicans sounding caution about changing the status quo, there are plenty of exceptions. President Trump himself has voiced support for a national popular vote, once calling the Electoral College a “disaster for democracy,” according to the Washington Post.

And this year the group Conservatives for Yes on National Popular Vote formed in support of the concept.

But Peter Wallison, a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, said it’s a bad idea no matter which party it comes from. He warns that a national popular vote will give rise to a myriad of “splinter parties” and that future presidents could move into the White House earning as little as a fifth of the national vote.

“The U.S. is a huge and diverse country, and as many different views as possible should be taken into account,” he said. “This happens in part because we have only two major parties, which have to build coalitions that attract voters in the most states, and their candidates for president reflect the views of the entire country.

“Without the two-party system there will be multiple parties — pro-life, pro-choice, pro- and anti-guns, pro- and anti-immigration, etc, etc. — plus an unknown number of billionaires who can fund their own races without a party behind them. A president with only 20% of the vote will not have the authority to speak for the American people.”

McNulty, the former Colorado House speaker, said it’s conceivable under a national popular vote that a presidential candidate who never even appears on Colorado’s ballot could get the state’s electoral votes and win the election.

Legalities, politics

The pro-113 camp counters that America’s 100 largest cities only encompass 17% of the nation’s population, so any viable campaign couldn’t restrict itself to large urban population centers. Sheek, with the League of Women Voters of Colorado and former mayor of Cortez, said that’s important to her as a rural resident of the state.

“Nationwide, it is estimated that the population is pretty evenly distributed between urban and rural communities,” she said. “If every vote was counted, candidates would need to court rural voters, not just those in urban areas.”

And that becomes even more relevant for Coloradans as the state turns increasingly blue and sheds its status as battleground territory. Neither Trump nor Biden has made an in-person visit to Colorado since February — a far different picture from the flurry of candidate visits four years ago — though the coronavirus pandemic has made comparisons to previous election cycles difficult.

As of the most recent campaign finance filings this week, the pro-national popular vote committee brought in about $4.4 million in Colorado, while the main opposing committee raised close to $1.5 million. But Pugliese points out that her group managed to collect more than 227,000 signatures to get Prop 113 on the ballot — far more than the 124,000 or so required.

Aside from the need for additional states to sign on to the national popular vote compact before it can become reality, legal hurdles likely stand in the way of the effort.

At the heart of that dispute is a constitutional conundrum. The compact clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from entering into agreements with one another without congressional consent.

On the other hand, the Constitution also gives state legislatures the power to appoint electors to the Electoral College how they see fit — a principle further fortified by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer, which concluded that Colorado has the power to stop its electors from casting their vote for anyone they please.

“The two of these (principles) going head to head will present some interesting legal arguments,” McNulty said.

Rein Taagepera, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine, said while the national popular vote appears to be more beneficial to Democrats presently, that could change.

“Never make laws that may fly in your face 10 years from now,” he said. “Remember when the South was solid Democrat? Remember when California had Republican governors (Ronald) Reagan, (George) Deukmejian and (Arnold) Schwarzenegger? In politics, the present is a poor predictor of the future.”

Taagepera yearns for an honest discussion on the issue — one not colored by partisan politics.

“It’s worth serious discussion,” he said. “And I mean discussion — not a debate where everyone defends one predetermined position and attacks another.”

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