Proposition 113 asks Colorado voters to approve adding the state to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). States signed to the NPVIC would pledge their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote, but only if their combined number of electoral votes totaled more than 270. Including Colorado, that number is currently at 196 electoral votes.
The NPVIC’s purpose is to avoid situations where the winner of the most electoral votes for president is not the winner of the popular vote. That has happened five times in U.S. history, but twice in the last five elections, including in 2016 when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by three million votes over Donald Trump.
Opponents’ primary argument against a national popular vote system says that if the U.S. abolished the electoral college, Colorado would become subservient to states with large populations like California and New York. At a September rally in Walsenburg, CO congressional candidate Lauren Boebert cited this point in her argument against the NPVIC.
“Jared Polis stole your votes for president and he gave them to California,” Boebert said. “The popular vote is a dangerous scheme that allows people like Hillary Clinton to steal the presidency.”
Boebert is referencing the bill — passed by Colorado’s Senate and House and signed by Gov. Jared Polis in 2019 — that committed Colorado to joining the NPVIC. Later that year, a citizen’s referendum supported by Boebert and other Colorado Republicans got Prop. 113 on the 2020 ballot. Frank McNulty, former Colorado speaker of the house, also mentioned California when arguing against Prop. 113 in a debate last month.
“The fact that we have clout on national issues because of the way we allocate our electoral votes matters,” McNulty said. “The fact that the legislature was willing to take this clout away from Colorado and toss it into a bucket with states like California and New York, and major metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Chicago. That matters a great deal. Colorado ought to be able to decide who gets our vote for President, not some big city on the West Coast or some large state on the East Coast.”
However, the arguments that invoke states like California are misleading because they ignore how our current Electoral College system already values big states and swing states over states like Colorado. For instance, this can be seen in the number of electoral votes afforded to big states like California and New York, who have a combined 84, compared to Colorado’s 9.
Also, there is actually not much of a difference when comparing Colorado’s and California’s change in influence if the NPVIC were enacted. In 2016, California had 10.2 percent of all electoral votes and 10.1 percent of the voting population. Colorado, meanwhile, had just 1.7 percent of all electoral votes despite our citizens accounting for 2 percent of the nation’s voting population. It does not appear that a national popular vote would give Colorado’s votes to California.
Monument Mayor Don Wilson was one of the initial proponents of the citizen’s movement to get Prop. 113 on the ballot and agreed that a popular vote would prioritize California over the rest of the country.
“[The national popular vote] would make the entire middle of the country flyover states,” Wilson said, “You, as a presidential candidate, are going to try and get the most bang for your buck and go to California and New York. Compare that to the money it would cost to go to the rural areas of Colorado where there are five acres between people, and I’m worried that those people will get lost in the shuffle if we do a popular vote.”
Wilson is right. In a perfect world the system the U.S. uses to elect its president would have to take into account all U.S. citizens, regardless of where they live within the country. Wilson’s argument misses the fact that unfortunately, the Electoral College system does not do that.
The organization FairVote, which supports a national popular vote, tracked all campaign events in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections. In 2012, 70 percent of all general election campaign events took place in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa) while 38 states saw zero campaign events. Similarly, in 2016, 68 percent of all general election campaign events were held in six states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Michigan) while 25 states saw zero campaign events.
Swing states dominate presidential campaigns and Colorado might not be one anymore. The intent of signing to the NPVIC is not to disenfranchise rural voters, it’s to give voters who vote against the rest of their state, including rural voters, a voice in the national conversation. While Wilson said he worried that rural voters would “get lost on the shuffle,” he failed to mention that that is what happens under the current Electoral College system.
In the 2016 presidential election 1.2 million Coloradans voted for Trump, only to see all nine of Colorado’s electoral votes go to Clinton. In Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes some of the most rural counties in America, 52 percent of voters chose Trump.
A national popular vote would try to remedy the fact that Republican voters in Democrat states and Democrat voters in Republican states are in some ways overlooked. But opponents of a popular vote continue to invoke California and urban areas as threats to rural voters.
The argument against a national popular vote often exclusively focuses on California and New York, two blue states. The top five states by population in the U.S. are California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania. In 2016, Trump won Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
But still, opponents of Prop. 113 only warn voters about California and New York. Rose Pugliese, a Republican Mesa County Commissioner and, along with Wilson, another leader of the citizen’s referendum, singled the states out during an appearance on The Jeff Crank Show in September.
“Colorado is such a leader on national policy issues,” Pugliese said. “And if we give our votes for president away to places like California and New York, we will no longer have that influence.”
While California and New York certainly are blue states with large populations, what Pugliese and other Electoral College supporters ignore is that the total votes of the five most populous states are split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Some opponents of Prop. 113 substitute states with huge cities like Los Angeles and New York City in their argument. But the top 100 American cities by population are split evenly as well when looking at their total combined votes.
Wilson tried to argue that Democratic cities and states with large populations would still be granted huge authority with a national popular vote for president. Yet, Wilson does not take into account how large the U.S. really is, and how difficult it still would be — even with large cities voting in one direction — for one party to win a majority of a popular vote.
“If you take California, Chicago, and New York, that’s 20 percent of the voting population,” Wilson said. “That doesn’t sound like much, but imagine you have to win 51 percent of the vote. Now that 20 percent becomes 40 percent of what you need. Which is significant.”
Again, Wilson picked three locations where Democrats are in the majority. In 2016 voters in California, Chicago, and New York made up a total of 16.5 percent of the national voting population. But that number includes all voters, regardless of which party they voted for.
Democrats in California, Chicago, and New York made up 10 percent of the national voting population. A Democratic candidate would still need five times that number to win the presidency. And in any case, those locations were home to 8.7 million voters who did not vote Democrat, but whose votes were not counted because Democrats were in the majority in their respective states. That is the exact problem the NPVIC is trying to solve.
Giving “Urban” Areas More Influence
In September, the Colorado Sun wrote a story examining experts’ views of the Electoral College as an institute of systemic racism.
“The fact that slavery and racism played a role in creating the system in 1787 does not mean the system is overtly racist today,” said Ben Waddell, a professor from Fort Lewis College, in the article. But, he added, “once you set up an institution it continues to carry a legacy, so that legacy of the three-fifths compromise continues to live within the Electoral College.”
During the 20th century large numbers of Black Americans migrated to urban areas. The article by the Sun talks to experts about how the Electoral College, designed to make urban areas less influential, stifles Black American’s voices as a byproduct, or maybe as a feature. The term ‘urban’ is often used as a coded word for Black, especially in politics.
“I understand that there are larger cities in red states, but that’s not the point to me,” Wilson said. “The point is that rural populations will be abandoned for larger, urban ones [if the NPVIC were signed].”
As ballots were sent out this week, voters might be curious about Prop. 113. The dominant argument from the opposition to the proposition is based on misleading rhetoric and preying on the misconceptions of the uninformed. California would not steal Colorado’s votes for president, and a popular vote would not change elections nearly as much as, say, technology has in the 21st century.
Note: numbers from the 2016 U.S. presidential election were taken from the New York Times’ state-by-state voter date, which can be found here.