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Editor’s note, 3/21/19: Gov. Jared Polis signed the “National Popular Vote” bill into law on March 15.
Is the nation ready to change the way it elects presidents? The Colorado General Assembly voted Thursday to approve a bill that would ensure the person who becomes America’s leader is the candidate who received the most individual votes. The bill now heads to Gov. Jared Polis for his signature. With Polis’ approval, the Centennial State would join nearly a dozen others in the National Popular Vote (NPV) Interstate Compact, meaning it would award its nine Electoral College votes to the winner of a national popular vote—even if that candidate does not win the most votes in Colorado.
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According to supporters, the NPV Compact puts the decision of who runs in the country into the hands of individual citizens by electing a president based on the most votes from a national electorate, rather than winner-take-all contests in states. “This bill endeavors to ensure that every vote in our country for president is counted equally, no matter where you live,” says sponsor Rep. Emily Sirota (D-Denver). However, the passage of the bill in the Colorado legislature won’t have any effect until more states sign onto the NPV Compact (more on that later).
The NPV bill is just one way that Democrats are using their newfound power in Colorado (and in the U.S. Congress) to increase voting representation ahead of the 2020 census and elections. At issue are questions at the core of America’s political system: Who is represented in government? Who has access to vote? And, in the case of a national popular vote, whose votes are truly counted once the ballots are cast?
Election reforms that increase voter representation make it easier to advance the bread-and-butter policy issues that matter to people, Gov. Jared Polis said in a recent speech at the Common Cause 2019 Policy Summit in Denver. “Having a playing field that puts people front and foremost as the main drivers of change, and doesn’t give unfair advantages to incumbents or special interests, will absolutely help all elected officials make progress,” he said. In addition to supporting a national popular vote, Polis points to bills before the state legislature to reduce the impact of special interests by limiting contributions for county elections and requiring more accountability in campaign ads.
Electing the president through a national popular vote isn’t a new concept. Colorado was the first state to approve the NPV compact in one chamber in 2006—at the time with bipartisan support. In recent years, however, the movement has been led by Democrats. Nationally, however, two-thirds of Americans say they prefer for presidential elections to be decided by a national popular vote instead of the Electoral College.
While Colorado’s bill appears likely to be signed into law, it’s not without contention: Every Republican in the state legislature opposed the bill. On Wednesday, the House debated it for about three hours throughout the day. And last week, at least 87 witnesses signed up to testify at a heated House committee hearing. A core issue in the debate was whether a small state like Colorado would fare better under the “one person, one vote” model of a national popular vote, or under the winner-take-all Electoral College model adopted by most states.
Read on for more about how this bill—among others being considered throughout the country—could change our presidential elections.
What’s behind the National Popular Vote movement?
The Electoral College model currently used by Colorado and 47 other states gives every electoral vote to the presidential candidate with the most statewide votes—whether the win is by one or one million ballots (Nebraska and Maine are the exceptions). The current model doesn’t account for the size of the win, or award a proportionate amount of electoral votes to the losing candidate.
In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton won all of Colorado’s nine Electoral College votes with 48 percent of the ballots, or 1.3 million votes. But the majority of Centennial State voters who did not vote for Clinton (52 percent) were not represented by the Electoral College result—including 1.2 million Coloradans who voted for Donald Trump and 239,000 voters who chose third-party candidates. In contrast, the NPV compact would count all of Coloradans’ 2.8 million ballots as part of a national popular vote to decide who becomes president.
Twice in the past 20 years (and at least four times in U.S. history), Americans have elected presidents who won the Electoral College, but lost the national popular vote. In 2016, President Donald Trump won large states like Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by narrow margins, while Hillary Clinton won a wider margin of votes in other large states like California, Illinois and New York. As a result, Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote to Clinton by about 2.9 million votes. President George W. Bush similarly lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000. Although both cases involved Republican presidents, Trump has claimed multiple times that he could have easily won the popular vote by simply campaigning differently.
What do the advocates say?
A key argument is that the winner-take-all model gives an unfair advantage to a handful of swing states that decide elections—and these swing states often receive political favor. In 2016, about 94 percent of presidential campaign events took place in just 12 swing states. Battleground states also receive more federal grants, disaster declarations, and education waivers than other states.
While Colorado was considered a swing state in recent elections, and thus received a fair share of presidential visits and perks, the Cook Political Report moved the Centennial State to the safe blue category of “Likely Democrat” column for 2020. Bill opponents say this type of shift gives the “swing state advantage” to different states over time. Advocates counter that such shifts happen slowly and may not even occur during a single voter’s lifetime.
Sirota says the NPV compact will force presidential candidates to campaign in all 50 states, expanding both voter representation and participation: A swing state gets about 60 percent voter turnout while “bystander states” get about 40 percent, according to the Colorado National Popular Vote organization. “The bill would really encourage everyone to vote, because everyone will believe and know that their vote counted,” Sirota says. In 2016, Colorado had one of the nation’s highest voter participation rates, according to the U.S. Elections Project.
Advocates also point out that the outdated Electoral College gives disproportionate power to states with fewer voters, even as the U.S. population shifts to large metro areas. One electoral vote in Wyoming, for example, (the state has three) is worth more than three votes in Colorado, one witness testified at the House committee hearing last week.
The states with more voting power also happen to be less diverse than the country overall, which “amplifies the votes of white people and reduces the voice of minorities,” reports the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). As a result, a black person’s vote is weighted at 95 percent of a white person’s vote and a Hispanic vote is weighted at 91 percent. Advocates say a national popular vote fixes this disparity by giving one equal vote to every person, regardless of state demographics.
The Colorado Secretary of State’s office testified in favor of the bill and said it would have no operational impact on how presidential elections are certified.
What is the opposition to the bill?
While both Democrats and Republicans say the participation of too few voters is a problem with the current election system, Democrats are more likely to cite voter disenfranchisement as an issue, while Republicans are more likely to cite voter fraud. As the House voted to approve Colorado’s NPV compact, for example, it also voted along party lines to kill an amendment sponsored by House Minority Leader Patrick Neville (R-Castle Rock) that would require proof of citizenship for voters.
Opponents say the NPV compact threatens Colorado’s representation in presidential elections by shifting too much power to states with large populations. A single county in Los Angeles has more voters than all of Colorado, points out Republican Rep. Dave Williams, who proposed failed amendments to allow voters to decide the issue. “Most people of Colorado are not going to be OK with the potential for larger states to decide our votes,” he said in last week’s hearing.
And that’s not the end of the opposition. After the bill passed the House on Thursday, Monument Mayor Don Wilson and Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese, both Republicans, said they will petition to get a statewide measure on the 2020 ballot asking voters to prevent the legislation from taking effect.
Sirota, however, cites data showing that the largest U.S. cities hold about 15 percent of the population and lean Democrat, while a roughly equal percentage of voters in rural areas lean Republican. That leaves about two-thirds of U.S. voters in suburbs split equally between the two major parties. “If you want to win the presidency, it is statistically impossible to only focus on urban areas,” she says.
Republicans also made multiple unsuccessful attempts Wednesday to offer an alternate solution to the NPV compact: Change the current winner-take-all model to distribute Colorado’s electors by Congressional districts.
University of Denver law professor Robert Hardaway, who opposes the bill, predicts the legislation will draw legal challenges over whether states can form interstate compacts without the approval of Congress, although no such challenges have been brought forward yet. He further argues that the most appropriate way to create a national popular vote is by amending the Constitution. “If we had a Constitutional Amendment we could abolish the Electoral College,” he said at the hearing.
Bill co-sponsor Rep. Jeni Arndt (D-Fort Collins) refuted both points in her opening remarks last week, saying that the NPV does not require Congressional approval or a Constitutional amendment because Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures the power to decide how their electors are chosen. Rather than abolishing the Electoral College, the NPV compact creates new rules for how electors should vote.
What happens next?
The NPV Compact would only go into effect if enough states sign on to represent 270 electoral votes—the amount needed to elect a president in the Electoral College, Sirota says. So, even if the bill is signed into law in Colorado, it won’t have any immediate effect.
So far, 11 states and Washington, D.C. have joined the compact, representing 172 electoral votes: Rhode Island, Vermont, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maryland, Washington, New Jersey, Illinois, New York, California, and Connecticut. If states like Colorado, New Mexico, and about five other states that are expected to consider their own NPV bills join the compact this year, the compact could reach about 220 electoral votes by 2020 and possibly hit the 270 threshold by 2024, says former Colorado representative and NPV consultant Joe Miklosi. “I think the pressure cooker is going to increase as we get closer to the goal and attract more national attention,” he says.
Polis—who says he sponsored a Constitutional amendment to elect presidents through a national popular vote as a member of Congress—also supports the bill, and is almost guaranteed to sign it into law. “It fundamentally makes sure the chief executive of our country is elected by the most voters,” he said in a recent speech. “It seems obvious, but we have a system that doesn’t do that currently. Hopefully we can get there.”