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Denver voters cast ballots on Nov. 8, 2018 (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, but he lost the national popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes. 

The split verdict — the fifth time in U.S. history — brought new attention in Colorado and elsewhere to efforts aimed at modifying or replacing the Electoral College, America’s system to elect presidents.

In November, Colorado voters will decide whether to affirm or repeal the legislature’s 2019 decision to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact with Proposition 113.

Right now, the state awards its nine electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes in Colorado. If the law survives, enough states join the national compact and it overcomes any court challenges, Colorado could potentially hand over its nine electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide — the national popular vote.

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The intent of the law is to circumvent the Electoral College system of choosing presidents by state in order to ensure the candidate who wins the most support nationally also wins the election. 

Among voters, polling from 2019 shows support for repealing the Electoral College is strongest among Democrats in Colorado, though Republicans have also expressed backing for changes to the system.

First, what is the Electoral College?

Under the Electoral College, which is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, 538 presidential electors representing all 50 states cast votes for the president rather than having citizens directly elect candidates to the office.

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Each state selects electors to cast votes for the president. States also decide how their electoral votes are apportioned. 

Forty-eight states have decided all of their electoral votes should go to whoever wins the popular vote in the state. Maine and Nebraska give two electoral votes to the winner of the statewide election, and one electoral vote for each congressional district a candidate wins. 

Recently, there have been questions about whether states can bind their electors to follow the vote of the people or if they are allowed to cast a ballot for whomever they want. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court settled the issue by ruling that  Colorado could remove presidential electors who ignore the vote of the people.

How did this question get on the ballot?

The Democratic-led Colorado General Assembly joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact with passage of Senate Bill 42 and Gov. Jared Polis’ signature in 2019. Last year, Polis said “the Electoral College system is kind of an antiquated, undemocratic concept” and he wanted “to get rid of it.”

The day after the governor signed the bill into law on March 15, however, critics started collecting signatures needed to challenge it on the ballot. By midyear, leaders of Coloradans Vote, the group opposing the law, announced they had gathered 150,000 signatures — enough to ask voters to repeal the measure.

Don Wilson, the Monument mayor and a lead organizer in effort to repeal the national popular vote compact, watches as supporters sign the petition at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver on July 12, 2019. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s constitution gives voters the ability to overturn laws approved by the state legislature. (Colorado voters added the power through referendum in 1910. A similar process exists in 22 other states.)

It is the first time since a tax increase on oleomargarine was rolled back in 1932 that voters have been asked to confirm or repeal a law.

So what’s the ballot question I need to consider?

The ballot measure says this:

“Shall the following Act of the General Assembly be approved: An Act concerning adoption of an agreement among the states to elect the President of the United States by national popular vote, being Senate Bill No. 19-042?”

To put it simply, if you vote “yes/for”, you’re voting to approve the law that signed Colorado onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. A “no/against” vote means you oppose the law that entered Colorado into the compact and want it invalidated.

What happens if Proposition 113 passes?

Nothing — at least not until enough states adopt the same measure. The national popular vote compact will only take effect once states with at least a combined 270 electoral votes — the number required to win a presidential election — join. At that point, barring successful legal challenges, the winner of the most votes across the country will claim the electoral votes of all the states in the compact and, therefore, win the election.

So far, 15 states and the District of Columbia — totaling 196 electoral votes, including Colorado — have signed onto the compact, putting the effort 74 electoral votes away from hitting its target. Backers of the proposal say it has passed one chamber of the state legislatures of nine additional states whose electoral votes total 88. If those states join the compact, the compact will pass the 270-vote goal.

Who is supporting the national popular vote?

Proponents of the national popular vote argue the reform is more democratic than the current system. They say, in a democracy, the candidate who wins the most votes should win an election. 

The national popular vote, the argument goes, would make every vote equal instead of the electoral college, which effectively weighs more votes over others. Another common argument is the current system causes candidates for president to focus all their attention on a handful of battleground states.

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An issue committee called Yes on National Popular Vote — which is registered in Colorado but funded heavily by out of state money — has spent more than $3 million in support of the ballot measure. The group has $56,000 currently in the bank, according to a campaign finance report filed on Sept. 21. 

Another group, Conservatives for Yes on National Popular Vote, is lobbying for conservative voters to support the measure. The group, which is tied to Democrats and fueled by out of state money, has spent a small amount on TV and social media advertising.

Multiple progressive groups in the state say they support a “yes” vote. The Colorado Democratic Party, along with regional chapters of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, ProgressNow Colorado and the ACLU have all endorsed the measure.

Who is against it?

Opponents of the national popular vote say the system would mean voters in other states determine whom Colorado’s electors go toward. The state’s electoral votes could go to a candidate who decisively loses the state

Every Republican in the state legislature voted against the original bill. Although Republican lawmakers in other states have advocated against the Electoral College, not one Republican in Colorado’s House or Senate voted to join the compact in 2019. U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and the state’s Republican Party also said they oppose the measure.

Twenty-seven county governments and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce have also announced opposition to the measure, according to the group Protect Colorado’s Vote, an issue committee formed to prevent the ballot question’s passage. The issue committee is backed by the same people who led the signature collection drive to challenge the law on the ballot — Monument Mayor Don Wilson and Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese, both Republicans. 

Protect Colorado’s Vote has $413,000 in the bank as of its Sept. 21 filing with state elections officials.

Polling data, though limited, show support among Republican voters for the measure is lagging. A March 2019 survey by Magellan Strategies, a conservative political firm based in Louisville, found that just 10% of Colorado Republicans had a favorable opinion of a national popular vote law compared with 72% who viewed it unfavorably. A September 2019 survey from Make Every Vote Count, an organization that supports the measure, found 34% of Republicans support the ballot question, compared to 76% of Democrats.

Some Republicans hope the presence of the measure will energize Colorado Republicans to vote in what otherwise is poised to be a bleak election year for the party.

Evan Ochsner

The Colorado Sun | Twitter: @EvanOchsner