Colorado Poised to Hold Statewide Referendum on National Popular Vote

Workaround to Electoral College will likely be put to the test

Jared Polis / Getty Images

A group hoping to overturn the Colorado legislature's decision to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact says it has turned in 227,198 petition signatures Thursday in its attempt to force a statewide referendum vote in 2020.

Organizers for Coloradans Vote will need about 125,000 of those signatures to pass muster with the secretary of state's office to qualify for the ballot in November of next year.

"We are humbled by the remarkable support we have received from people across Colorado," said Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese, one of the lead organizers. "Over 2,200 volunteers carried petitions to protect Colorado’s vote for President. This groundswell of grassroots support is not only remarkable—it's historic. No measure in Colorado's history has turned in as many signatures collected by volunteers as we did today."

"We will not give our votes for president to California, Illinois, or New York," said Monument Mayor Don Wilson, the other lead organizer. "We will keep our votes for president where they belong, with the voters of Colorado."

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NPV, is an attempt to change the way the president is elected without having to amend the Constitution.

Since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, states have awarded all of their presidential electors to the candidate receiving the most votes in that state only, with a few eccentric exceptions notwithstanding. However, states that enter into the NPV compact agree that their electors will be pledged to the candidate that wins the most votes nationwide, regardless if a majority of citizens in the state chose a different candidate.

As an example of how the compact could change an election outcome, if the compact had been in place for the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton would have defeated Donald Trump to become the nation's 45th president.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have entered into the compact, which does not become active until enough states have joined such that the total of their electors would surpass 270, the number required to win the presidency.

The governments that have signed on thus far represent 196 electoral votes.

Colorado's General Assembly passed the compact in February, and Democratic Governor Jared Polis signed it into law without fanfare the next month.

The Colorado Constitution, however, allows citizens to overturn some laws passed by the General Assembly through the petition process.

If the petitions clear the number of signatures needed, Colorado will essentially become the first state to hold a true referendum on the compact, meaning the outcome could become a proxy in the public relations fight over the NPV in other states.

Colorado Politics previously reported that citizens have not challenged a law passed by their legislature since 1932.

Other opponents to the NPV have argued that the compact is unconstitutional, but a lawsuit is unlikely until enough states have joined so as to make the agreement active.

Jon Caldara, president of the Denver-based, free-market think tank Independence Institute has run several statewide petition drives over a two-decade span and says the amount of cushion the organizers have for disqualified signatures is still so big that it is "certain" the question will appear on the November 2020 ballot.

"I've never seen such a quick, strong, citizen's reaction to an initiative like this," he said. "This is exercising part of our constitution that hasn't been exercised in 97 years, and it just shows how remarkably out of step our progressive overlords of our state are with the rank-and-file of Colorado."

If the question does make the ballot, Caldara also sees the possibility that the fight could be representative of the issue nationwide.

"This is a highly leveraged political play because it’s an issue that every [Colorado] House member and half the senators and whoever is running for U.S. Senate will have to weigh in on next year," he said.

"Assuming they're successful next year, it could put a silver spike in the national popular vote movement nationwide. We'd be the first state to undo what our legislature did, that's just a statement that they might not be able to recover from."

Disclosure: The author of this story previously worked at the Independence Institute.