Senate Bill 19-042 was whisked through the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs committee last week. Introduced by Committee Chair Mike Foote of Boulder County, there was never any doubt it would move to the Senate floor. Irrespective of which party controls a chamber in Colorado, both House and Senate State Affairs Committees are notorious as the “kill committees” where a majority party ignominiously dispatches abrasively partisan legislation carried by minority members. They also serve as leadership vehicles for swiftly ushering bills to the floor which otherwise might fall prey to the idiosyncratic preferences of a rogue majority legislator on another committee. State Affairs members provide a phalanx of loyalists that votes in unison.
Foote’s bill is co-sponsored in the House by Democrats Emily Sirota of Denver and Jeni Arndt from Ft. Collins. The legislation enlists Colorado in a national “popular vote compact,” a device that enables a coalition of participating states to make an end run around the Electoral College. Since it would be virtually impossible to ever secure the support of three fourths of the states for a Constitutional amendment repealing the current arrangement, you have to admire the ingenuity of the compact’s architects. Every state embracing the interstate agreement promises to name electors pledged to support the candidate winning the national popular vote for president — even when that candidate is not the winner of a majority of voters within each state.
The agreement becomes self-executing as soon as the alliance secures the commitment of enough states to control a majority of 270 votes in the Electoral College. This is not expected to occur in time for the impending 2020 race. Thirteen states have already adopted the agreement, providing 198 electoral votes. Colorado is expected to add nine while another six states will take up the legislation later this year but still fall short of a majority. This is one of those reforms you can change your opinion about from day to day. With two presidents elected despite minority popular support in just the past 16 years, there is reason for concern.
It was apparent during the hearing that Republicans view this initiative as a crassly partisan maneuver. But support and opposition is more complicated than that. The national League Of Women Voters has supported an overhaul of the Electoral College since 1970. A handful of Republicans also support the change, reportedly including former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo. More than 70 witnesses signed up to testify, many claiming to discern the original intent of America’s Founding Fathers. For the most part, this debate separated those decrying the tyranny of the majority from those bemoaning a tyranny of the swing states.
Foote made the argument that every vote for president anywhere in the country should have the same weight, pointing out that only a national plebiscite achieves this goal. He also noted that 93 percent of all presidential campaign events in 2016 were held in just 12 states where results were in doubt, ignoring three fourths of the electorate residing in reliably blue or red states. That is a bothersome reality. Yet, in contrast, another witness alleged that the Electoral College was intended to assure a breadth of support across the country and not just a mining of voters in metropolitan centers.
If a popular vote compact is eventually assembled among exclusively or predominantly Democratic states, it is hard to see how this will significantly alter future results. The change proponents are more likely to trigger will be in the nature of presidential campaigns. There is a proven “drop-off” in voter participation within non-battleground states. A majority voter doesn’t have to worry about achieving a happy result with or without casting his or her ballot, while virtually no amount of effort by the minority is likely to reverse this dominance. Reliance on a national popular vote incentivizes parties to turn out every potential supporter, everywhere. This also ratchets up the cost of campaigning, pleasing billionaires, while subjecting every American to the unceasing barrage of political ads Colorado has experienced during the past few election cycles. I was cheered to hear that after three straight Democratic presidential victories, we might no longer be considered a swing state.
Since the popular vote compact is a voluntary rather than a constitutional mechanism, states could always walk away if they find themselves unhappy with the results after a few election cycles. Just because Democrats have been turning out more voters nationally in recent elections doesn’t predict anything about the future. Not to mention the risk of a truly fringe winner emerging in a multi-party, winner-take-all process. Another witness termed this arrangement a Russian-style election where a candidate can be elected with far less than 50% support. Macron recently pulled off this trick in France. The popular vote compact is not a solution in search of a problem. We have a problem. Unanticipated consequences, anyone?
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at email@example.com.