Colorado voters have decided to join a growing list of states that hope to decide a president by popular vote, the latest move in a national chess match over the way the United States elects its presidents.
Called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, the agreement calls for states to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, once enough states join the agreement.
So far, 15 states and the District of Columbia have approved the pact, covering 196 electoral votes of the required 270 to win the presidency.
That 270 matters: The states that have approved legislation to join the compact agreed it would not take effect until the 270 threshold is reached. Once it does, those states will have the power to use their Electoral College votes to elect a winner, according to the popular vote. This uses the Electoral College to effectively phase out the Electoral College, though it would not apply to states that do not sign up.
Colorado’s Senate was the first state legislative body to try to pass the national popular vote proposal in 2006, though the legislation failed multiple times. It was ultimately signed into law last year by Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, but was then was successfully challenged by Coloradans Vote, a group that gathered enough signatures to invoke a rarely used referendum to ask Colorado voters to confirm or repeal the law.
John Koza was part of that early effort and was the creator and chair of the National Popular Vote nonprofit. He is a computer scientist who is known for his work in genetics and even co-invented the scratch-off lottery ticket and has had more than a passing interest in how the U.S. presidential election operates.
“I've been interested in the quirks of the Electoral College since the ’60s,” Koza said.“Several of us got together and said maybe a state-based approach, which is what we have, would be a better way to try to get a national popular vote. So that's how the national popular vote got started.”
While the compact has gained traction in states run by Democratic governors, it has been supported by some Republicans such as former RNC chair Michael Steele.
Critics, however, say the popular vote initiative will encourage candidates to focus on large cities, which tend to favor Democratic candidates. Koza takes issue with that.
“We know how candidates campaign now, and they would campaign the same way they do now, except it would be spread out over the whole country,” he said.
That sentiment is echoed by Sylvia Bernstein, the coalition coordinator for the Yes on National Popular Vote campaign.
“It shouldn't be a partisan issue,” Bernstein said. “The reason why people should support the national popular vote is pretty simple. … The candidate with the most votes should win, just the way it happens in every other election in this country.”
She said candidates should be forced to campaign across the entire country, not just in a handful of swing states.
“Right now, we see both candidates hunkered down in Pennsylvania. You know, Pennsylvania has nothing to do with Colorado, or California, or Texas.”
Other opponents say states would cede power under the compact.
“The feedback that I was receiving from my constituents was, what can we do about this? Why don't we get to vote on the national popular vote?” said Don Wilson, a Republican, a co-founder of Coloradans Vote and the mayor of Monument, Colorado.
“I would agree that if it's not a partisan issue, I would say that it tears away from our state sovereignty, or your state to be an independent voice,” Wilson said.
“The presidential election is the only election we have where state sovereignty and the state's population is combined for one voice.”
Both Koza and Wilson already have their sights set on what happens after Colorado. Wilson said he would want to discuss the issue with other states before it shows up in their legislatures.
Koza is looking to Virginia, which passed the compact in its House of Delegates, then was punted by committee to be taken up by the state Senate after the election.
One thing all parties agree on is the likelihood of a legal challenge after the campaign reaches the required number of electoral votes. Proponents are confident that the courts will ultimately allow states to decide how to carry out presidential elections.
“It's hard to imagine that something that's important wouldn't get challenged in court,” Bernstein said.
“We feel very confident that we would survive those challenges. The Constitution is very clear that state legislators have the exclusive and plenary right to award the state's electors however they so choose. And so that's exactly what this compact does.”