Colorado is set to become the latest member of a group of states banding together to bypass the electoral college system.
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact — which already has 11 states and the District of Columbia on board — would hand the 2020 presidential election to whoever wins the popular vote. But it would only take effect if states representing at least 270 electoral college votes pass the law.
Under the Constitution, states have the power to determine how they award their electoral votes in national elections. Today, many states have winner-take-all laws, which award all of its electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes within the state.
Most states swing either Democrat or Republican, making the winner of a given election in the majority of jurisdictions a foregone conclusion. Candidates don’t need to focus on issues concerning those voters and, as a result, winner-take-all statutes have created a handful of “battleground” states that candidates focus their attention and policies on.
“If candidates are behind in a state, they ignore it because they won’t be able to flip it during a three-month campaign. If they’re ahead in a state, they don’t pay attention because they won’t lose it,” said John R. Koza, chairman of National Popular Vote, a movement advocating state legislation for the compact.
Currently, the compact has 172 electoral votes from the 12 states that have enacted the legislation: Rhode Island, Vermont, Hawaii, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, California and the District of Columbia.
Colorado’s House and Senate passed the bill, which is ready for Gov. Jared Polis (D) to sign, bringing the count to 181. New Mexico, whose House has passed the bill, too, is viewed as the next state to join on.
“When we hit 270, all these bills take effect simultaneously. Then there’s a pool of 270 electoral votes that’s going to go to whomever gets the most votes in all 50 states,” Koza added.
But not everyone is as hopeful as Koza.
“The problem with the compact is getting another dozen states to sign on,” said Reed Hundt, chairman and co-founder of Making Every Vote Count. The remaining states where it may pass are smaller and left-leaning. “Republican states haven’t embraced it yet.”
According to Hundt, who previously served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, for the first time in American history, in reasonably close, non-landslide elections, 1 in every 3 presidential candidates who wins the popular vote will lose the Electoral College.
Five presidents have taken office without winning the national popular vote, most recently in 2000 and 2016. The 2004 election was also a close call. If Sen. John F. Kerry had 60,000 additional votes in Ohio, he would have won the election, even though President George W. Bush was 3 million votes ahead in the popular vote.
“It didn’t happen between 1888 and 2000; it didn’t happen in the 20th century. Then, there were contests over very many states,” Hundt said, citing the Kennedy-Nixon election, where there was a close margin in about half of the states.
Due to changes in state demographics, elections are now fought in a tiny number of swing states, Hundt said. In the 2012, 2016 and 2020 elections, nearly 40 states, with about 80 percent of the country’s population, were or will be ignored by both candidates, he said.
“This is a new American demographic, which shows that the electoral system of the 18th century doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “No one at the time the Constitution was written thought that 80 percent of the population would be irrelevant.”
What is becoming clear is that the total impact of the margin of non-participators is huge. According to research conducted by Making Every Vote Count, guaranteeing that the presidency would go to the winner of the popular vote would boost turnout by 20 million to 80 million.
“That’s a huge increase in participation in democracy,” Hundt said.
But it would also require both parties making major strategic changes.
“Why? Because if you have all these new votes and the 80 percent can’t be taken for granted, you have to reposition your party so you have a pretty good shot at getting the most votes. The policies would have to change,” he said. “Our view is: That’s what democracy is about."