The first question to qualify for the 2020 Colorado ballot resurrects a constitutional provision which has lain dormant for 88 years. Among the Progressive Era reforms included in a rewrite of Colorado’s constitution a century ago was the right of citizens to overturn a legislative action by petitioning for its immediate repeal. When Democratic majorities in both chambers opted to join the National Popular Vote compact in 2019, pledging the state’s presidential electors to the candidate winning the most nationwide votes, irrespective of Colorado voters’ expressed preference, opponents emerged before the governor signed the bill. They submitted 227,000 signatures before the year was out and the repeal question will appear as Proposition 113.
Before considering the merits of the National Popular Vote proposal, it should be recognized that support and objection have developed along partisan lines — most Democrats in favor and most Republicans opposed. This division is not entirely clean, with renegades to be found in both camps. We should not kid ourselves, however, that virtue resides with either. There is little doubt Democrats would be serving up the same impassioned defenses of the Electoral College if it were reliably producing White House victories for them.
Nonetheless, there is reason to be troubled that Donald Trump’s successful re-election would almost certainly occur despite receiving a minority of total votes cast. This result would mean half the presidential elections since the turn of the 21st century will have been awarded to the loser of the national popular vote. What kind of democracy is that? This result is only possible because 48 of 50 states have chosen to strengthen their individual political clout by adopting a winner-take-all system — a result which was not anticipated in Philadelphia.
Arguments regarding the intentions of the constitutional convention are largely irrelevant today. Suffice it to say that a document which assigned three-fifths of human equivalence for each non-voting slave in its national census has no claim to divine inspiration. The same can be said for the electoral college. Using Occam’s razor as a test, it seems unlikely delegates to the Constitutional Convention were attempting to protect small states or acknowledge the rights of aggrieved minorities. It’s far more that they thought of themselves as Virginians or New Yorkers first and Americans second. I’m a proud Coloradan, to be sure, but remain an American first.
So, it may be more instructive to examine the effects of the Electoral College on public policy and national campaigns nearly 250 years on. Examining presidential campaigns in a viciously partisan age, it turns out victory or defeat currently hinges on election results in a handful of so-called swing states that unpredictably break either Republican or Democratic. The remainder of American voters are consciously ignored by the major candidates. In fact, presidential contestants rarely make the effort to personally appear in reliably red or blue states for anything other than closed-to-the-public fundraisers. The contention that the Electoral College provides a voice to smaller, rural states is entirely bogus. Only one of the 13 smallest states is a swinger and it receives few visits since it is — well, small and unlikely to make any difference.
The need to please the fickle constituencies in swing states also distorts national policy. No better example can be offered than Florida. Following a partisan Supreme Court decision that lifted George W. Bush into the White House in 2000 and so embarrassing that the court specifically instructed it should never serve as a precedent, Karl Rove began to search for a legislative remedy that would gain the support of Florida’s senior voting block for Bush’s re-election campaign. He settled on an expansion of Medicare plan benefits to provide prescription drug coverage through a newly created Part 4. It was believed this would solidify Republican support along the Interstate 4 corridor of central Florida. It worked as intended.
Congressional Republicans traded away the right to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies in the process, but those costs only exploded in recent years. Just last week, the president extended his previous assurances of an off-shore drilling ban for Florida beaches to South Carolina and Georgia, where his polls are faltering. No similar favoritism was offered to blue states in the Northeast or along the left coast.
After considering these realities, the National Popular Vote Compact begins to sound ever more attractive. Shouldn’t a presidential candidate campaign for every vote? Shouldn’t each voter carry equal weight? The counter argument that America is not really a democracy, but a republic, rings hollow — conflating representative assemblies with an anachronistic and non-representative political artifact that undermines public confidence in fairness. Admittedly, the compact is a bit of a Rube Goldberg mechanism that will undoubtedly face challenges in the courts, but an enthusiastic endorsement from Colorado voters could prove a tipping point for other states.