Skip to contents
Politics and Government

Colorado lawmakers are sparring over a plan to bypass the Electoral College. Here’s what’s at stake.

Democrats aim to make the popular vote paramount in the U.S., but Republican state lawmakers counter that Senate Bill 42 would hurt less populous states like Colorado

Voters cast ballots at Denver's 14th Avenue and Bannock Street polling station on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

Colorado’s Republican lawmakers launched stiff opposition Monday to a Democratic effort to join a nationwide compact aiming to ensure a presidential candidate who seizes the national popular vote also wins the presidential election.

Senate Bill 42 would essentially nullify the Electoral College system in such situations, including the 2016 presidential election. Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote over Republican Donald Trump three years ago, but he took the presidency after winning the Electoral College vote.

The measure is among the top issues GOP state lawmakers are pushing back against this year at the Colorado Capitol. They claim Democrats are aiming to sidestep the Constitution and rewrite how elections are won and lost after the results in 2016. Republicans also warn that the legislation would effectively mean Colorado loses its voice on the national stage.

“It doesn’t matter what we vote, how we vote in Colorado if this bill passes,” argued Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican.

But Democrats claim the contrary, and say the effort is about ensuring that every vote counts in the way it’s supposed to.

“What Senate Bill 42 stands for, and what the national popular vote stands for, is simply this: One person, one vote,” said state Sen. Mike Foote, a Boulder County Democrat who is sponsoring the measure. “It’s a way that every vote is equal and every vote matters — in every presidential election — no matter where the voter happens to reside at that point. Unfortunately, we don’t have that in many of the states around the country in our current system.”

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

How the bill works

The bill would go into effect only if a presidential candidate won the country’s popular vote but not the electoral vote, and only if enough states actually adopted the measure to equal enough electoral votes to win the presidency.

So far, 11 states — including New Jersey, New York, California, Washington and Maryland — and Washington, D.C., have adopted the policy. Colorado would be the 12th state if Senate Bill 42 passes.

There’s not a set number of states that would have to sign on to the compact for it to go into effect since different states have different numbers of electoral votes. But the participating states would need to total at least 270 electoral votes  — the amount needed to win the U.S. presidency. Colorado, for instance has 9 while California has 55 and Texas has 38.

Voters cast ballots at a polling location in Denver on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

If Colorado joins the compact, there would be 181 electoral votes represented by the states involved, so supporters of the movement are a long way from seeing it go into effect. Other states are considering whether to join, however.

The initiative was crafted, in part, by Colorado elections lawyer Mark Grueskin and dates back to the wake of Democrat Al Gore’s loss in 2000 to Republican George W. Bush. That contest, in which Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote, stoked conversations about changing the nation’s Electoral College system.

The 2016 election then reignited the debate.

Grueskin said the national popular vote idea is a better way than the out-of-date Electoral College system — created by the nation’s founders to make sure that less populated areas of the country weren’t underrepresented.

“There is truly a national consensus for taking the popular vote of the United States and using that rather than an 18th-century mathematical formula derived by a number of white males sitting around a table who couldn’t agree on some other things,” Grueskin testified last week as the bill passed out of a Senate committee 3-2 on party lines. “This is a process that has been going on now for at least a dozen years in terms of refining this idea.”

It’s a big change to a system that’s been around for more than 200 years, drawing a lot of interest at the Capitol.

More than 70 people signed up to testify on behalf of the bill in a hearing that spanned more than four hours. The legislation is also among the most searched on the Colorado General Assembly’s website this year.  

Why it was brought

Simply put, the national popular vote movement centers on the idea that the Electoral College system is antiquated.

Colorado Democrats say they are bringing it up to improve the way the nation elects presidents. Republicans say it’s an effort to put the GOP at a disadvantage.

Different states handle presidential electors differently, with almost all of them allocating all of their electors to the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote. Only Maine and Nebraska don’t follow that winner-take-all rule, instead dividing their electors proportionately based on the results.

Colorado, however, has a winner-take-all system, meaning the candidate who gets the most votes gets all of the electors.

Sen. Mike Foote, D-Boulder County. (Handout)

“In 2004, over 1 million Coloradans voted for (Democrat) John Kerry, however all the electors in Colorado went toward George W. Bush, creating the illusion that actually 100 percent of the voters in Colorado voted for that candidate,” Foote said. “Let’s flip it around in 2016: Over 1.2 million Coloradans voted for President Trump.”

In that race, all of the state’s electoral votes went to his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Those against the national popular vote movement say it would cut out the voice of rural and low-population states. That was a concern of Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan, of Vail, who represents a wide swath of the rural Western Slope.

But she said Monday that the more she weighed the measure, the more she realized it actually didn’t cut out rural voices.

“I’m confident that this bill in front of us today makes sure those votes will be heard equally and the same,” she said.

Donovan said she’s confident a vote in Hotchkiss would be as impactful as ones from Arvada and Boulder if the national popular vote bill were to pass, and that also the initiative would let Colorado’s collective voice be heard the same way it is in Ohio, or Florida or Michigan.

Why Republicans are so opposed to it

During the debate on the Senate floor Monday, Larimer County Republican Sen. Rob Woodward said it was among the most important pieces of legislation state lawmakers will decide in their careers. The state GOP is accusing Democrats of trying to ram the legislation through and is urging its base to speak out.

“It is wrong for our country and the way it has been constituted,” said Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican. “This bill is antithetical to everything in our Constitution. It is a run around our Constitution.”

Gardner said, if enough do states sign onto the national popular vote to put it into effect, it would likely be challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court.

MORE: How do Republicans stay relevant in the Colorado legislature? It depends who you ask.

But there is also a political reason Republicans are against the bill. Voters in rural states with smaller populations tend to be more conservative, and under the Electoral College system they have a greater voice in elections. Eliminate the Electoral College, they say, and suddenly rural America’s power is lost.

That’s not to mention the lack of attention candidates would give those sparsely populated places, Republicans argue.

“How many presidential campaigns went to Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah,” said Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican, referencing the 2016 cycle. “There weren’t very many, granted. You know how many there were in Colorado? Nineteen. We had 19 presidential (campaign) visits in the state of Colorado. Just think: If this bill passes were going to be relegated to North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Utah and the other flyover states.”

He added: “Colorado will be a flyover state. We won’t have any presidential debates or candidates come to this state.”

As the legislation was being debated on Monday, GOP senators offered a number of amendments as part of their arguments against it. Those included one asking Colorado voters to decide in an election whether to adopt the policy and another that would mandate the state’s presidential electors vote for the candidate chosen by California’s voters.

The latter was a barb intended to suggest Colorado would be at the whim of more populous, liberal states like California, New York and New Jersey should the bill become law. Both amendments were rejected by Democrats.

The Colorado Senate chamber on Sept. 18, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

What’s next for the legislation

The bill passed the Colorado Senate on a preliminary vote Monday and should make it through the chamber this week after a final vote. It will then head to the House.

The legislation will get another committee hearing there, where more vocal opposition and support is expected.

Given the measure’s wide support among Democrats in the Senate, it’s likely the measure will continue on through the House and to the governor’s desk.

Gov. Jared Polis is “supportive” of the legislation, his staffers said Monday.


We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.