Next November, Colorado voters will have a chance to weigh in on whether the country should select a president by the straight popular vote – or stick with the current Electoral College system.
Democratic state Sen. Mike Foote spoke to a crowded room at the Mancos Public Library last week about the benefits of switching to a “National Popular Vote” system – stating it would give Coloradans a greater voice.
“The current system we have right now disincentives the presidential candidates from trying to speak to the most number of Americans, the most number of states,” said Foote, the main sponsor of a National Popular Vote bill signed by Gov. Jared Polis earlier this year. “States are routinely ignored.”
Foote represents the 17th district in eastern Boulder County in the Colorado General Assembly.
The bill was approved by Polis in March, but after some backlash and a petition circulated by politicians opposing the measure – including Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese – the issue will go up for a referendum in November. If approved, the legislation would allow Colorado to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement amongst states that they will grant their electoral votes to the candidate who earns the most votes nationwide.
The Mancos event on Dec. 5 was sponsored by the Colorado League of Women Voters and saw about four dozen attendees. Foote explained how the National Popular Vote compact would work and why he supports the shift, before taking a barrage of questions from audience members with a range of perspectives.
Right now, 48 states (minus Nebraska and Maine) have a “winner take all” system, meaning they give all their electoral votes to the candidate who earns the most in the state.
This has allowed the election of candidates who have lost the overall popular vote, but have managed to scoop the majority of electoral votes – which has happened five times throughout this nation’s history, the latest being in 2016.
And in Colorado in 2016, although President Donald Trump received a substantial number of votes – 1.2 million to Hilary Clinton’s 1.3 million – all nine of the state’s electoral votes went to Clinton.
“Every single one of those 1.2 million votes that Donald Trump won meant nothing,” Foote said. He pointed out that this included voters in Montezuma County, where Trump claimed 60% of the votes in 2016.
Foote said that switching to a National Popular Vote comes down to two basic principles: The candidate earning the most votes should win, and every person’s vote should count equally.
By basing the election result on the overall vote count, Foote believes they could increase voter turnout. Right now, if someone’s vote diverges from the state’s overall consensus, it can feel pointless to show up to the ballot box on Election Day, he said.
Another reason to switch systems, Foote said, is to encourage candidates to campaign in non-swing states that lean solidly Democratic or Republican.
He quoted former Wisconsin governor and presidential candidate Scott Walker, who said, “The nation as a whole is not going to elect the next president, 12 states are.”
Swing states rotate, depending on demographic and cultural shifts. Colorado enjoyed swing status for a few election cycles, but is now considered a blue state overall.
The emphasis on swing states stretches to policies too, he said, pointing to instances where politicians have changed their stances or shown overt favoritism to swing states like Florida.
“What they try to do is appeal to that small slice of voters along the I-5 corridor in Florida,” he said. “Or in a certain spot in Pennsylvania that’s up for grabs. But not in the nonswing states. So that creates in many ways a real warping of the presidential campaign.”
The increased attention candidates pay to swing states can also make voters feel more valued there – the average voter turnout in swing states is 65% versus 50% in nonswing states, according to Foote.
Right now, 15 states and Washington D.C. have adopted legislation to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement amongst states to throw their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote tally, even if it goes against the state’s vote.
The compact would go into effect only when it is joined by states representing 270 electoral votes – the number needed to elect a president. Currently, the compact represents 196 electoral votes.
In Colorado, the law has been suspended pending the veto referendum vote that will go before voters in November 2020.
The presentation sparked a lively discussion at the Mancos library. One attendee asked why Colorado couldn’t just “become a swing state again” in order to attract campaigners’ attention.
Foote replied that it looks like Colorado – particularly in the Denver metro area – seems to be continuing on a blue trajectory, and it doesn’t appear that the state will swing again in the near future. Forcing national candidates to focus on all citizens in every election would lead to more egalitarian campaigning practices, he added.
“I think we’ll have a much better system,” he said.
Others voiced the concern that shifting to a popular vote system would push candidates to campaign in big cities, with higher populaces, and ignore rural states. Foote’s response was that the current system doesn’t benefit small states now either.
He added too that right now, one-sixth of the U.S. lives in urban areas, one-sixth in rural areas, and two-thirds in the suburbs, and that politicians can’t solely concentrate on the most populated cities and win.
One man noted that he would have liked to have seen the issue brought to voters from the beginning.
“It stands to reason that if we want voter participation, this would have been a fantastic thing to bring to the voters,” he said.