Colorado will be the focal point on Election Day for one of the most intriguing proposed changes in American presidential politics since women were given the right to vote.
Facing Colorado voters on Nov. 2: a ballot measure to change the state constitution so that Colorado’s nine electoral votes would be allocated in proportion to the popular vote in the state instead of a winner-take-all basis. Colorado and 47 other states now use the winner-take-all method in presidential elections.
If approved by voters, Colorado’s measure could begin a state-by-state change in the electoral vote system, without proponents having to go to the trouble of attempting to amend the U.S. Constitution.
If George Bush got 52 percent of the popular vote in Colorado on Nov. 2, he’d be allocated five electoral votes instead of all nine.
If Democratic candidate John Kerry got 47 percent of the Colorado vote, he’d get four electoral votes, instead of none.
Were it to be approved by the voters and upheld by the courts, the ballot measure could boost Kerry, currently trailing in the latest Colorado poll at 39 percent.
But it could also conceivably cost Kerry the election, if he were locked in a close race and got only five of the state’s electoral votes.
Sue Casey, the state director for the Kerry campaign in Colorado, voiced exasperation with the measure: “I think it’s an esoteric, insider thing.”
She added, “I’m hoping that we win in Colorado and get nine electoral votes. There is no way you want to go all out and win a state — and then find out that you didn’t win the state.”
Colorado’s Republican Gov. Bill Owens is also critical of the measure and will be mobilizing opposition to it. Owens said the measure would make Colorado insignificant by diminishing the incentive for presidential candidates to pay attention to the state.
“For Colorado, for the next 100 years we wouldn’t have the ability to compete for the federal dollars, for highways, for base closings,” he said.
Helping lead the charge for the measure, called Amendment 36, is Democratic consultant Rick Ridder, a veteran of the Howard Dean campaign.
Julie Brown, the campaign director of Make Your Vote Count, the Denver-based group pushing the measure, said the idea began in 2001, when a Democratic state legislator from Boulder, Ron Tupa, proposed a bill to allocate Colorado’s electoral votes as Maine and Nebraska do: the popular vote winner would get two electoral votes and the winner of the rest of the state’s electoral votes would be determined by who carried each congressional district.
Tupa’s bill died in the legislature, so activists turned to the idea of a ballot measure.
'Fairest possible way'
“The statewide popular vote is the fairest possible way to do it,” said Brown. “What this is really about is making everybody’s vote in the state count equally. When you send nine people to the Electoral College and at least four of them don’t represent the state, it’s not fair, it’s not democratic.”
She added, “Contrary to popular belief, this is a non-partisan issue. We have had nothing to do with the Democratic Party on this.” She also said, “We have had no discussions with the Kerry campaign.”
Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli found in a Sept. 14-Sept. 18 survey of 600 likely voters that 51 percent supported the proposal, while 31 percent opposed it and 18 percent were undecided.
“In my opinion, that means it’s in trouble,” Ciruli said. Why? “For the most part, at this point there is very little advertising up for these amendments yet. Early voting starts here about Oct. 10. That’s when the big ads start. If you look at every other ballot issue in the polls, they are at 60 percent support or better.”
Leading the opposition to the measure is veteran Republican consultant Katy Atkinson, who has run initiative efforts in the past, including one to defeat Election Day voter registration.
Atkinson agreed with Ciruli that based on past ballot measure history the proposal looks unlikely to be approved.
Assessing poll results
“The rule in initiative campaigns is that if they come in on the first poll with under 55 or 60 percent on the proponents’ side, they’re in big trouble. The first poll gives the voters their initial impression, before they’ve heard any arguments against it; that’s normally the peak. It’s very difficult to build support while the other side is shooting at you,” she said.
“It looks so grossly partisan; it is sponsored by a Democratic operation with one of the big Democratic consultants in town (Ridder) with out-of-state money,” Ciruli said. “The Republicans will be overwhelmingly against it.”
Even if it wins, the measure is certain to be challenged in the courts due to questions about its constitutionality.
Article II of the Constitution says “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors.”
The Colorado ballot measure is being voted on by the people directly, not by the state legislature. But Denver attorney Mark Grueskin, who drafted the measure, said there are Supreme Court precedents supporting the idea of the people being the ultimate authority in such electoral law cases.
Much of the funding of the effort to pass the ballot measure has come from Jorge Klor de Alva, a California resident and a business executive who heads a firm called Apollo International, which is linked to Apollo Group, parent company of the University of Phoenix.
The founder of the Apollo group is Dr. John Sperling, who has been a major Democratic donor, giving thousands of dollars to candidates from John Kerry to Howard Dean.
Klor de Alva has contributed to the campaigns of two Democratic congressional candidates.
A national harbinger?
Given some Americans’ puzzlement with the electoral mechanics that allow one candidate to receive the most votes nationwide and not win the electoral vote, one might expect that Colorado could be the harbinger of a national movement if the measure is approved by the voters.
But Atkinson is skeptical: She said only 16 states allow ballot initiatives and state legislators in the other states would not be likely to undertake electoral vote-splitting on their own.
If what the proponents were most concerned about was starting a national trend, Atkinson said, “They could have made this take effect in 2008, instead of in this presidential election. Or they could also have put a trigger in that said it took effect in Colorado after a certain number of the states adopted. Colorado would have been on the leading edge, but would not put itself at a huge disadvantage.”
But Brown said what other states do will not affect her support for Colorado proposal. “If you told me that no other state was going to do this and Colorado was going to be the only state to do this, I would still be working just as hard to pass it.”