By Cory Phare
A presidential candidate has lost the popular vote but won the presidency through the Electoral College five times in U.S. history.
If Coloradans have their say, however, in future elections the state’s electoral votes could go to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote.
Colorado voters on Tuesday approved Proposition 113, which reaffirms the state’s commitment to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The Colorado General Assembly previously passed a bill to join the compact, which was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis in March 2019. Opponents of the compact put Proposition 113 on the 2020 ballot in an attempt to overturn the law.
However, with the passage of 113, Coloradans committed their nine Electoral College votes to go to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote so long as states representing at least 270 Electoral College votes adopt the compact.
RED asked Robert Preuhs, Ph.D., professor and chair of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Political Science, what it all portends for Colorado and the country.
Preuhs: For proponents, it’s an issue of democracy: The person with the most votes should win the presidency. In practice, that’s the idea that the majority opinion ought to rule, with reservations for minority rights.
Opponents argue that Colorado is essentially giving Electoral College votes away to others across the country; the big consequence of this would be the neglect of smaller and rural communities in favor of urban voters, where the bulk of ballots would come from. That would end up refocusing policy platforms and legislative efforts.
One other argument is that we’re not guaranteed other states will not change their mind. And even if we enter into a “soft compact” by reaching the threshold for it to go into effect, we don’t know where things will head in the future. Right now, Colorado is a reliably blue state favoring Democrats, but it’s foreseeable in 10, 20 years that the GOP might win the nationwide plurality – that would force all the state’s electoral votes to go Republican.
Preuhs: The campaigns would focus on larger metropolitan regions with an emphasis on bicoastal areas, as opposed to the handful of swing states they do right now. That would remove the bias in the current Electoral College system, reducing the oversized influence of smaller population areas.
Preuhs: With Colorado, states that have adopted the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact account for 196 electoral votes. The compact only goes into effect when the total committed state electoral votes hits 270. If more pass, we’re looking at a minimum of four to eight years down the line. That said, if this election once again elects a president who loses the popular vote, you may see a renewed push across states to make the change.
Preuhs: There was a push in the late 1970s and again in the 1990s to replace the Electoral College with the popular vote at the congressional level. That failed, as many states believed it would hurt them, and wasn’t able to gain the traction needed to pass.
That said, things do change – D.C. was added to the mix in 1961. The Constitution leaves it up to the states on how to divvy up Electoral College votes.
Preuhs: Maine and Nebraska are in the spotlight right now, as they decide votes based upon the winner of their individual congressional districts, combined with the two electors (each representing the state’s two senators), who cast their vote for the statewide winner. That allows for some degree of fairness in representing their states’ individual preferences.
Another example would be a proportional model: Say one candidate received 55% of the vote and the other 45%; electorates would cast their ballot to be reflective of this split. The downside is that, unless everyone engages in the proportional model, those early adopters stand to be overlooked. No states are currently using this approach.
The national-popular-vote model, as it’s drawn, would cast all of a state’s electoral votes for the candidate with the most votes across the country – that’s the “one person, one vote” idea.
Preuhs: As background, the Constitution itself is a compromise because of the competing interests at play. Small states were part of that compromise; the Electoral College emerged to afford for the dampening of what they viewed as foolish decision-making and with a general distrust of “the masses.” By counting slaves as three-fifths (of a free man) for taxation and representation purposes – while denying them the right to vote – it also allowed the Southern states to have an oversized influence, so they were part of the compromise as well.
The holdover of these consequences reflects a difference in states that have overrepresentation relative to population and their racial composition of modern society. Today, we see that white voters tend to have more Electoral College power because (many of them) live in areas with smaller minority populations. In smaller states, African Americans and Latinos comprise about 6.6% and 7% of the total population; in larger states, it’s about 13.5% and 15.3%, respectively.
Electorally, that translates into some of the smallest areas population-wise getting the most benefits – which happen to be some of the whitest states.
Join a tri-institutional panel for Election 2020 Part II: WTF (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday ... will it ever end?!?!) on Friday from 2-3 p.m. to discuss the 2020 election results, assess where we stand now and dig into the historical precedent for some of the election events that have happened in 2020.
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