Ask the Indy: Is the Electoral College a ‘relic of slavery?’ Is there any polling on the National Popular Vote in Colorado?

Also, what about a potential voting laws backlash in the states?

A ballot heading toward a ballot box in Colorado in 2018 (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

Following our explainer on the latest Electoral College protest movement and Colorado’s role in it, readers reached out with still more questions about the polarizing piece of legislation, which was signed without fanfare by Gov. Jared Polis on Friday. We set out to find some answers.

To refresh your memories: States now award their Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who wins the state vote, not the national popular vote. But this session, the Colorado General Assembly passed legislation that would reverse that, pledging the state’s electoral votes to the national winner. 

With the governor’s signature, Colorado joins 11 other states and the District of Columbia in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

The new law is triggered only if and when enough states pass similar laws to reach 270 Electoral College votes, a majority of the total of 538. It’s essentially a workaround the Electoral College.

Related: Electoral College protest movement: Colorado’s role, and how reform would change the way we pick presidents

So, to the questions: Indy reader Vivian Weinstein, a 77-year-old retired nurse, has spent the past two winters reading about slavery. “I am trying to understand why we are still so affected by our history,” she said, adding that she always thought the Electoral College was a “relic of slavery” and that it somehow disproportionately benefited slave states. “Please explain,” she asked us.

And we can.

The historical record on this stretches back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when the framers gathered in Philadelphia to hash out how our leaders would govern the United States. The number of electoral votes a state has is mostly based on population, and back during the time of the framers, slave states had vastly larger populations — if enslaved people had, in fact, been counted as people.

“If you counted slaves, then slave states would get more votes — would have more power — and if you don’t count them, they would have less power,” says George C. Edwards III, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University and author of the book, “Why The Electoral College is Bad for America.” “They can’t vote though, so there’s the irony … you can count them but they don’t vote.”

This was cause for some debate during the heady days of that convention and it eventually led to a famous compromise that also had to do with taxation based on population. Out of that debate came something called the three-fifths compromise. “What they did is count, for population purposes, three-fifths of all the slaves,” Edwards says. “So that meant that states with a lot of slaves would get credit for three-fifths of them when it came to allocating electoral votes.”

And that also meant slave states did end up getting more voting power. It also had a major immediate impact.

During the election of 1800, John Adams would have been re-elected president if only free white males, the people who could vote, were counted, Edwards says. Instead, because southern slave states earned more electoral votes for counting three-fifths of their enslaved population, Thomas Jefferson won.

Still, Tara Ross, a retired lawyer and author of the book, “The Indispensable Electoral College: How the Founders’ Plan Saves Our Country from Mob Rule,” doesn’t appreciate labeling the Electoral College a “shadow of slavery’s power on America today,” as Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has done.

The three-fifths compromise that came out of the convention, Ross has written, was more about congressional representation and taxation than it was about the Electoral College system. “Indeed, the discussions about the compromise and the discussions about the presidential election system were largely separate,” she says. “The main reason the compromise is cited today is because, late in the convention, it was decided that each state’s electoral vote allocation would match its congressional allocation.”

***

Indy reader Gary Justus, a retired Denver teacher, had another question for us, less about the messy history of the United States and more about the potential for a chaotic future if the National Popular Vote comes to pass.

“Every state will be in a frantic fight for every vote,” Justus wrote. “Explore the challenge of deadlocked election commissions not certifying the votes!”

To break it down a bit more, this is what he’s saying: If enough states pass National Popular Vote laws to trigger them all going into effect and hitting the 270 electoral vote mark to essentially cancel the practical impact of the Electoral College system, then the returns nationwide for the national popular vote must be precise in order to determine a winner. Think of it this way: Under the current system, if a president won enough states to earn more than 300 Electoral College votes, and North Carolina, with its 15 electoral votes, had an election meltdown and massive fraud scandal involving truckloads of missing ballots, well, that’s still only 15 electoral votes — not enough to sway the election.

If the winner of the presidency, though, is determined by a national popular vote, Justus worries about a “frantic fight” for every vote. What if, he wonders, election commissions in some states don’t certify votes or have trouble with ballots? He is also concerned that laws that have popped up in some states — laws, for example, that require voters to have IDs, reduce early voting opportunities, or close or move precincts — will increase as a backlash to a National Popular Vote.

“I’m not against the NPV IF this very real possibility could be figured out in advance,” Justus says. So what do proponents of the NPV say about that?

John Koza, chairman of the National Popular Vote campaign based in California, isn’t too concerned with such a scenario. “The country has been running popular elections for president for a very long time,” he says, pointing in particular to the competition for votes being especially intense in the dozen or so closely divided battleground states, which include roughly 95 million people and roughly 30 percent of the population. “Even in these highly competitive states, I am not aware of any deadlocked election commissions,” he says, adding states already have multiple laws concerning deadlines for counting ballots at the precinct, county, and state level.

“Existing federal laws set other deadlines for each state’s ‘final determination’ of their count of popular vote and for issuing certificates certifying the popular vote count in each state,” Koza says.

***

Finally, another reader wanted to know if there has been a scientific poll in Colorado gauging likely voters’ stances on the NPV bill.

Answer: Just this week.

A poll by the Colorado-based Republican firm Magellan Strategies surveyed 500 likely voters between March 11 and March 13 and found “likely 2020 Colorado general election voters do not have an informed opinion of the National Popular Vote law, with only 34% of respondents having a favorable opinion of it, 39% having an unfavorable opinion, and 27% not having any opinion of the law.”

By the end of the poll questions, however, respondents seemed to have a more favorable view of the proposed law, with nearly half saying they would vote for the NVP.  (The poll had a margin of error of +/- 4.38 percent.)

Some more key findings, verbatim from the firm’s website:

  • Voters are more familiar with the Electoral College than the National Popular Vote law. Among all respondents, 49% said they had a favorable opinion of the Electoral College and 47% had an unfavorable opinion of it, and 4% had no opinion.

  • Colorado voters are evenly divided on a possible ballot measure that would affirm or repeal the National Popular Vote law. Among all respondents, 47% of voters would vote yes and approve the law and 47% would vote no and reject it. Six percent of voters were undecided.

  • Support for the NPV law is strongest among Democratic and younger voters, while opposition is strongest among Republican and older voters. Unaffiliated voter opinion is evenly split, with 44% supporting the law and 48% opposing it.

  • Voter intensity is stronger among voters [who] oppose the law, with 35% of respondents saying they would definitely vote no and reject it compared to 23% of respondents saying they would definitely vote yes and approve it.

  • Opposition to the NPV ballot measure is not limited to Republicans and Trump voters. Among respondents [who] oppose the ballot measure, 14% intend to vote for the Democratic Presidential nominee and 13% intend to vote for “some other candidate”.

  • Historically, it has been very difficult for a Colorado ballot measure to achieve voter approval when initial support at the start of the campaign is below 55%. This survey finds voter support for [a potential] NPV law [ballot measure] at 47%. Among respondents [who] are very familiar with the NPV law voter support is 30% and opposition is 69%, indicating voter opinion declines the more they learn about the law.

Dig in to the results here.

Other than this, the last statewide Colorado poll on the issue with results released publicly was in 2008, when left-leaning Public Policy Polling checked the pulse of 800 voters here. Asked if the presidential winner should be “the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states, or the current Electoral College system?” 68 percent went with the popular vote and 32 percent favored the current Electoral College system.

Pollsters have quizzed voters across the nation on this for years and found consistently high support for the idea that a presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote should win the White House.

“Only one poll since 2012 shows more people who would prefer the current Electoral College system to the ‘popular’ one,” reported CNN in June. “That poll was a Suffolk/USA Today poll, conducted in December 2016, and it showed 42% who wanted to switch to the popular vote and exactly half who wanted to keep the Electoral College.”

A lot of how people answer, though, might have to do with the way pollsters ask the question. Make the idea of changing the Constitution to achieve the NPV, for instance, and support for the idea can drop.

The recent Colorado poll asked the question this way: “Regardless of what you know about it, do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the National Popular Vote law?”

Since 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court halted a recount of ballots in Florida, effectively giving the presidential election to Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore, Gallup polls have found “overwhelming support,” for getting rid of the Electoral College to adopt the popular vote, according to CNN.

However, in December 2016, just a month after the election of Republican President Donald Trump, who won the Electoral College but lost the national popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by about three million votes, support for the Electoral College spiked.

“Weeks after the 2016 election, 47% of Americans say they want to keep the Electoral College, while 49% say they want to amend the Constitution to allow for a popular vote for president,” reported Gallup, who conducted the survey. “In the past, a clear majority favored amending the U.S. Constitution to replace the Electoral College with a popular vote system.” (And, yes, their question did ask if voters wanted to “amend the Constitution,” so there’s that.)

One possible reason for the sharp 2016 uptick, according to Gallup, is that Republicans know Trump wouldn’t have won without the Electoral College system in place, “and that Republicans possess a state-by-state advantage in this area, at least for now. Also, the popular vote is clearly advantageous to Democrats, who can accumulate big totals in heavily Democratic states such as California.”

A poll in the summer of 2018 conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found 65 percent of U.S. voters, nearly two-thirds, think the national popular vote is the better way to pick presidents. Pollsters there found the popular vote “particularly popular among black Americans.”

Coloradans have been asked to vote on whether to change the way our Electoral College members vote — though it was quite a while ago.

In 2004, a group of Coloradans put a measure on the statewide ballot that would have aligned our nine electoral votes with the percentage of the national vote for president, splitting them 5-4, say, if the vote came down 55 percent to 45 percent. It went down in flames.

You’d think with all the attention the National Popular Vote got in the lead-up to its signing by Gov. Polis last week, some entity would have run a statewide poll here. But news organizations who used to put up the money for such public opinion surveys are strapped for cash.

Meanwhile, Democrats control the legislature and Polis always said he would sign a bill, so maybe research firms or those who would fund a poll figured it wouldn’t change any lawmaker’s mind. Or Polis’, for that matter. He has called the Electoral College a “relic of the past” and said he’s “long supported electing the president by who gets the most votes.”

But as NPV opponents organize an effort to persuade enough voters to sign enough petitions to get a question on the statewide ballot about whether to overturn the law, they might want to know the current mood of the electorate before putting time and resources into it. So maybe we will see some poll results, even now, after Polis has signed this bill into law.

3 COMMENTS

  1. If any of these folks rallying for the NPV had read the Federalist Papers and Madison’s Notes and the other history, they’d see the very valid reason the framers put the electoral college into the Constitution. Through their writings, you will learn ancient history and learn that America is not a democracy because factions within them destroy, eating them from the inside out. They have failed at much higher rates in Greece and Rome than their republics. And violently. If you want America to end violently, vote for the NPV. If not, convince your state legislators to stay with the EC. .

  2. so why even vote then. If, with a 270 electoral vote national total, Colorado’s vote goes to whoever gets the popular national vote, then it doesn’t matter how the vote goes in Colorado (as Colorado is rarely a swing vote state). The votes in Colorado, would in effect go with the votes of the big electoral college states, period. So, if Colorado is not a swing state, then your vote doesn’t matter!

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