Michigan would join 'national popular vote' compact under ballot initiative
LANSING — A bipartisan group pushing to elect presidents based on the national popular vote plans to put the question before Michigan voters in 2022.
The “Yes on National Popular Vote” campaign, announced Monday, proposes Michigan join an interstate compact that would only take effect if additional states also pledge to award their delegates to the candidate who receives the most votes in each presidential election.
The compact would upend — but not technically undo — the traditional Electoral College system that has five times elected a president who got fewer votes than a competitor, most recently Republicans George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016.
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Fifteen states and Washington D.C. have joined the compact since 2006, when John Koza, a computer scientist who graduated from the University of Michigan, created the formal organization that has since led the push for reform.
Backers of the new initiative — former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis and former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer — aim to make Michigan the 16th state.
The idea “transcends traditional partisan politics,” said Anuzis, who has pushed similar legislation as a consultant for the National Popular Vote organization. “It applies the very simple notion of one person, one vote for presidential elections.”
Brewer, who has battled with Anuzis in past elections, said he was proud to join the effort because “Democracy means that every vote should count equally, and the candidate with the most votes should be elected president — every time.”
To put the proposal on the 2022 state ballot, organizers will need to collect at least 340,047 valid voter petition signatures within 180 days. They plan to file ballot language with the Michigan Secretary of State this week and will seek formal approval before beginning to circulate petitions.
Even if Michigan voters choose to join the compact, it would not take effect immediately.
Under terms of the agreement, it would only become operational if there are enough participating states to combine their 270 electoral votes — the number needed to win the presidency. If that happens, participating states would award their delegates to the winner of the national vote regardless of which candidate won each individual state.
So far, participating states have a combined 195 Electoral College votes. Michigan would make it 210 — about three-quarters of the total needed to ratify the compact.
Michigan lawmakers have debated the compact since at least 2008, when the Democratic-led state House approved legislation to join. That legislation died in the Republican-led Senate, however, and current legislative leaders have made it clear they do not want Michigan to join.
The National Popular Vote compact would be a “raw deal for Michigan voters” and any new legislation is “dead on arrival in the House,” Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said in a March statement.
Wentworth argued the national popular vote compact would give too much electoral power to Democratic population centers, suggesting it would “take our votes and give them away to out of touch liberals in New York and California.”
Like most states, Michigan currently awards all of its Electoral College votes to the winner of the statewide vote. In 2020, that was Democratic President Joe Biden, who beat Trump by 154,188 votes here. Biden also won by 7 million votes nationally and won the Electoral College 306-232.
But the 2016 election was much closer. Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes en route to a 304-227 Electoral College, but he lost the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Had the compact been active in 2016, Clinton would have been elected president. Same with Democrat Al Gore, who in 2000 won the national popular vote by 543,895 votes but lost the Electoral College to Bush, 271-266, after the Supreme Court halted a Florida recount.
Still, the national popular vote is a concept that Republicans should be able to support, argued Anuzis, the former Michigan GOP chairman.
“I think Republicans and or Democrats will have an even chance, or a fair chance, of winning the national popular vote, when every voter in every state is politically relevant every time,” Anuzis said in a Monday afternoon press conference.
Critics contend presidential candidates may spend less time in states like Michigan — a key swing state in the last two elections — if they are able to win the national popular vote by focusing on larger media markets and population centers.
But the national popular vote would treat “every state as a battleground state” and “every voter will be a battleground voter,” Anuzis argued. “Republicans and Democrats will have to appeal to and talk to every voter in America, including every voter in Michigan.”
The Electoral College system was developed by the Founding Fathers as a means to give each state a defined, Constitutional role in deciding the presidential election.
But that was "a time when voters were not very involved in the presidential election at all," said Matt Grossmann, Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
More Americans now participate in presidential elections, and "there's certainly a reasonable moral argument for having the winner of the most votes win the national election," Grossmann told Bridge Michigan.
Some scholars contend states would need congressional approval to enact a national popular vote compact, and others have posited the compact could ultimately be deemed an unconstitutional attempt to circumvent the Electoral College.
As written, the compact was "obviously designed to withstand court scrutiny,” Grossmann said, “but we litigate everything in the United States, so we would litigate this as well."
While some Republicans like Anuzis support the national popular vote concept, leaders in the GOP-led Michigan Legislature have routinely blocked enabling legislation.
As with other attempts to reform the Electoral College system, support or opposition from political officials tends to be based on "who would benefit, in partisan terms," Grossmann said.
In 2014, for instance, Republicans who had not won a Michigan presidential election since 1988 proposed ending the state’s winner-take-all system to award Electoral College votes proportionally to the winner of each congressional district. In 2012, Democratic President Barack Obama would have split Michigan electors with GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Backers argued that awarding electors proportionally would have encouraged more presidential visits to a state that Democrats had carried for nearly three decades. But that happened anyway in 2016, when Michigan emerged as a key swing state that Trump narrowly won after capping his whirlwind campaign in Grand Rapids.
While the Electoral College helped Republicans win the White House in 2000 and 2016, it also actually gave Obama an advantage because he won "tipping point" states that could have decided the 2008 and 2012 elections had those races been closer, Grossmann said.
"It's not inevitable, but it certainly looks like now Republicans are benefiting from the Electoral College and will for the next couple of elections."
The national popular vote campaign plans to begin circulating petitions in Michigan later this fall.
Hiring paid circulators typically costs more than $1 million, and the campaign could cost considerably more if the proposal makes it to the 2022 ballot.
Organizers said Monday they expect bipartisan donors from across the state and country.
"We think this will be very popular," said Brewer, the former Michigan Democratic Party chairman. "We think there will be a lot of grassroots enthusiasm for it, and we're going to be out there raising money for it."
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