In the real-time Schitt’s Creek we call 2020, Colorado’s Proposition 113 barely registers on the wacko-meter. But its peculiarities carry echoes of a time when political parties mattered more to our democracy than cable news gasbags.
The most obvious oddity of Prop 113 is it asks voters to approve something — Colorado’s participation in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact — already approved by the legislature and signed into law by the governor. For the small band of Colorado voters that knows this, a reasonable question might be, why is this on the ballot at all?
The answer is the Republican sponsors of the ballot issue —Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese and Monument Mayor Don Wilson — want it to fail, which would have the effect of repealing the law. The referendum is not written as a repeal; it simply reproduces the original bill, owing to election rules that, trust me, you don’t want me trying to explain.
So a “yes” vote upholds the law committing Colorado to the compact; a “no” vote repeals it.
The more substantive oddity has to do with the compact itself. It represents a work-around to the electoral college — the state-based system for electing presidents enshrined in the Constitution — but requires, inconveniently, a state-based ratification process.
The jurisdictions to commit so far are all presumptively blue — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia.
Yes, Maryland and Massachusetts elect Republican governors from time to time, including most recently, but these are the sort of Republicans that would be considered dangerous left-wing radicals in deep-red states.
So why wouldn’t liberals have exactly the same problem with this process they have with the process it is supposed to supplant? There are not enough presumptively blue states to get to 270 electoral votes.
For the compact to reach that magic number, which is what it needs to be implemented, it will have to be enacted in some red states, or at least some swing states, and this looks more challenging today than even four years ago.
“When the first bill was introduced, in 2006, I don’t think anyone, except for maybe The Simpsons, predicted that Donald Trump would become president at some point,” said Mike Foote, the Lafayette Democrat who sponsored the 2019 bill in the state Senate.
Because Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 but won the Electoral College, many Republicans now view the compact as a repudiation of their dear leader.
“This bill was introduced in January, the first day of the session in 2019, and every single Republican legislator had locked down against it before the first committee hearing,” Foote recalled. “Talk radio did the same thing. They think it’s just about trying to make sure that Trump isn’t the president, and that’s not what it’s designed to do.”
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The loneliest job in Colorado politics this year is trying to convince Republican voters to support Prop 113, which has fallen to a self-described conservative activist from Michigan named Dennis Lennox.
“I’m a conservative first and a Republican second,” Lennox told me. “As a conservative, one person, one vote is a foundational principle. It doesn’t matter what state you live in, doesn’t matter what county you live in, doesn’t matter your gender, doesn’t matter your race, your ethnicity, national origin. One person, one vote.”
Lennox is nothing if not energetic. He has been barnstorming across Colorado for Prop 113 since January and estimates he’s addressed some sort of conservative gathering — a town hall forum, Republican county meeting, chamber of commerce social — in 45 of Colorado’s 64 counties.
“They don’t know about it, to be honest,” he said. “Nobody knows about Proposition 113. I’ve been doing (editorial) board meetings for weeks now. Even your colleagues at some of the most established newspapers and television outlets in the state don’t know what Proposition 113 is. It’s not getting any attention. There are no debates. There are no forums. Partly because of COVID, but partly because it’s not a sexy issue, it’s not an easy issue to explain.”
Lennox believes that voters who view the issue as purely partisan — and among those who’ve heard of it, most do — are missing a much larger point.
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“You and I, right now, we could name the six states that are going to decide this election. Basically, 44 states are completely irrelevant. Colorado loses when it’s not competitive. You can see it this cycle. Trump has raised over $5 million from Colorado, but that money is leaving Colorado. It’s being exported to the political economy outside of Colorado because Colorado is irrelevant. “
The down-ballot effect on the minority party in a non-competitive state can be devastating. You can see it in the state of the Democratic Party in the deep-red South. You can also see it in the Colorado Republican Party, increasingly beset by infighting and extremism.
“Most conservatives don’t understand it,” Lennox said of the national popular vote. “Look, when I first heard of it about six years ago, my instinctive reaction was, wouldn’t this have made Al Gore president? Then I had to stop and think about it. So that’s our message: Stop, think, and vote yes. Because no, Al Gore would not have been president. And no, Hillary Clinton would not have been president. Because we’ve never run an election under the national popular vote.”
Just for fun, we do tally up the national totals, even though they have no role in determining the winner. As a result, many people instinctively apply those numbers as if they would be the same in a system where the national popular vote actually determined the outcome.
But the nature of such a campaign would be very different from the current campaign. Republican votes in California would matter. Democratic votes in Texas would matter. All votes would matter. You know, the way they do in every other race for every other office.
Maybe lousy voter turnout levels in the U.S. aren’t a reflection of laziness or apathy. Maybe they’re a reflection of voters on both sides knowing in advance who’s going to get the electoral votes in their states and deciding that voting isn’t worth the bother.
Making much of the country irrelevant in presidential elections has some perverse effects on public policy. Why did President Trump suddenly decide Puerto Rico needed $13 billion three years after Hurricane Maria? Because the storm swelled the Puerto Rican population of Florida and Trump needs those electoral votes.
Lennox believes that Medicare Part D, the prescription drug entitlement many conservatives abhor, was the result of George W. Bush needing the votes of Florida retirees. He blames No Child Left Behind, the widely panned Bush education policy, on W pandering to soccer moms in Ohio, then a swing state.
Closer to home, conservatives fear that Trump having no shot at Colorado’s electoral votes could suppress turnout for Cory Gardner, who is trying to defend his Senate seat, the last statewide office held by a Republican. If Colorado Trump voters were motivated to turn out because their votes counted as much as any others in a national popular vote, Gardner might stand a better chance.
“It’s only taken a partisan angle in Colorado because the Colorado Republican Party got its clock cleaned in 2018 and it needed something to rally the troops and motivate the base, and Cory Gardner needed something to gin up turnout,” Lennox said.
“That’s why there’s also the abortion question (Prop 115) on the ballot, that’s why there’s also the illegal immigrant voting (Amendment 76), which is already illegal in Colorado. There are three scam ballot questions funded by Cory Gardner’s dark money groups to gin up conservative turnout.”
Republicans often argue that a national popular vote would hand control of the White House to California and New York. Lennox recommends arithmetic.
“Eighty-two percent of voters don’t live in California or New York, so if you believe that one plus one equals two, I don’t know of any method in which 82% of the people can be outvoted by 18% of the people. It would become a numbers game.”
Many analysts expect demographic changes to turn deep-red Texas into a competitive state, like Nevada and Arizona before it, if not this year, by 2024. Without those 38 electoral votes, it would be very difficult for a Republican to win the White House under the current system. Lennox believes many Republicans are arguing against their own future interests by rejecting a national popular vote.
“In Arizona, when this bill was introduced 10 years ago, two-thirds of the Republicans in the legislature supported it,” Lennox said. “In my home state of Michigan, almost every Republican supported it, including the Republican Speaker of the House. The compact has passed on a bipartisan basis elsewhere. In many states, more Republicans support it than Democrats do.”
Neither Arizona nor Michigan has joined the compact to date. Lennox cites Newt Gingrich and Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor and 2016 Libertarian presidential nominee, as conservative supporters of a national popular vote.
Mix together widespread ignorance of the issue, the difficulty of passing ballot issues generally, language that looks like a legislative bill (because it is), and the mutual partisan misunderstanding of the purpose, and it’s anybody’s guess whether Colorado’s nine electoral votes will remain committed to the compact. Even if they do, backers are still 74 short of the 270 they need to activate the compact.
Amid the madness of 2020, it’s easy for an idealistic effort to reinvigorate our democracy to get lost. If you believe in the principle of one person, one vote, and it seems ridiculous to you that a Floridian’s vote matters way more than yours in the selection of the next president, Prop 113 deserves your support.
Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger
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