Just a few months ago, Colorado agreed to radically rethink the way the president is chosen in the United States.
The state joined a compact to award its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. The plan would become law if states representing 270 electors join, ensuring the popular vote winner the presidency. (So far, 16 states, representing 196 electors, have joined.)
That decision, approved by the state’s Democratic governor in March, prompted a serious backlash that culminated this week, when activists submitted a petition to repeal the law by referendum in 2020.
The contentious fight, with fundraising and grass-roots organizing on both sides, reflects a national reckoning with how U.S. leaders are elected that intensified after 2016, when President Trump won the election but lost the popular vote by about 3 million ballots.
“Colorado has benefited from being a swing state in the past, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a swing state in the future,” said state Sen. Mike Foote (D), who sponsored the National Popular Vote bill in the Colorado Senate. “Colorado voters are going to realize that their votes just don’t really matter.”
The state has supported Democratic candidates in the last three presidential elections. Although it has one Republican and one Democratic U.S. senator, the last two governors have been Democrats who spearheaded liberal policies such as marijuana legalization.
The popular vote law, Foote said, would give all voters a reason to turn up at the polls.
“This is something that appeals to everybody across the board,” Foote said of the popular vote. “Everybody’s vote should be equal; everybody should matter.”
But the state’s Republicans fear they would lose their voice if the popular vote took hold.
Rose Pugliese (R), a commissioner for Mesa County, says a popular vote would silence Coloradans and draw national candidates away from Colorado and toward highly populated areas on the coasts.
That’s why she decided to mobilize the day after the National Popular Vote bill was signed into law, organizing rallies in support of the electoral college system that drew hundreds of people.
“It bothers me that places with higher populations that don’t understand the issues in Colorado could make a decision for us,” she said. “That’s pretty offensive.”
She and allies have since gathered more than 227,000 signatures in support of repeal, she said.
“It really crosses ideological boundaries,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who supports the repeal of the law. “It is not in Colorado’s interest to allow the states on the coast to control a presidential election.”
Others argue the state’s increasingly clear partisanship is already diminishing their power as voters.
“Right now, when a Colorado voter fills out their ballot of who they want for president — whether independent, Republican or Democrat — if it’s not the popular choice in this state, then why vote?” said Jessie Koerner, a communications specialist for the League of Women Voters of Colorado, a nonpartisan organization that has advocated getting rid of the electoral college for decades. “Why even make your voice heard?”
Koerner said bypassing the electoral system will galvanize voters who decide to stay home on Election Day because their vote “won’t matter.” It could motivate conservatives who are discouraged or liberals who become apathetic because their states will inevitably vote blue, she said.
“Colorado is becoming a blue state, and those Republican and independent voters would get to join forces with Republican and independent voters from all over the country,” she said. “So it ceases to be a purely Colorado process in electing the president, and those voices get elevated.”
Many voters across the country are facing the same frustration. In the upcoming presidential election, Trump and the Democratic nominee are likely to flock to battleground states, determined to turn out voters in places such as Pennsylvania and Michigan rather than states such as Alabama and New York.
Some candidates, including Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., have called for electoral college reform on the national stage. “It’s simple: the candidate who gets the most votes should win,” his website reads. “States don’t vote, people vote, and everyone’s vote should count exactly the same. The Electoral College has to go.”
Some of the state’s national leaders also have weighed in.
Project West PAC, the leadership committee of Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), is among the biggest financial supporters of the movement to repeal the popular vote — contributing $50,000 to the cause, according to state documents.
“The Electoral College is so important because it takes into account a state’s population, while still maintaining each state’s unique, independent voice,” he said in a statement. “Giving away Colorado’s electoral votes to whomever California and New York choose to support minimizes Colorado’s influence.”
A spokeswoman of presidential candidate Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) said the senator “believes the electoral college is outdated and supports eliminating it nationwide.”
Former governor John Hickenlooper, who is also running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has stayed relatively quiet on the subject.
“There’s a lot to be said for it, but I’m not quite there yet to say I support it,” Hickenlooper told the Colorado Sun of the popular vote. “In the end, our Founding Fathers got things pretty right. It might be best to just stay right where we are.”