March 11, 2019

Senate committee moves national popular vote bill

As the 2020 presidential election kicks into gear, New Mexico is a step closer to joining a group of states in upending how the country selects its leader.

The Senate Rules Committee backed a bill Sunday that would allow New Mexico to join a compact of several other states committed to putting its electoral college votes behind whichever candidate wins the most votes nationwide.

Known as the national popular vote, the idea is part of a movement to remove what backers argue is an outdated vestige of American democracy but which critics of the bill argue would undercut the political power of smaller states like New Mexico.

Under the U.S. Constitution, each state gets an electoral college vote commensurate to the number of representatives it has in Congress. Under the formula, smaller states are over-represented. New Mexico has five electoral college votes while California, with a population nearly 20 times larger, has 55 votes.

Critics of the popular vote contend the electoral college ensures even smaller states have an outsized voice in selecting the president.

But backers argue small states are still left out as candidates focus on a handful of political battlegrounds — often, states with larger populations — they might be able to win.

Moreover, proponents of House Bill 55 argue the popular vote is more equitable, ensuring a voter in Los Angeles or Phoenix counts as much as a voter in rural Wyoming.

The election of President Donald Trump, who got nearly 3 million fewer votes than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, has added urgency to the issue. But the measure’s sponsor, Sen. Mimi Stewart, has carried such legislation for years. This may be the first year it has a real chance of getting to the governor’s desk.

“It really gets to one person one vote, which I think is the most empowering concept of all,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, a Democrat from Las Cruces who sits on the Senate Rules Committee.

But another member of the committee cautioned against viewing the idea through the lens of past elections.

Changing how presidents are elected will change the strategy, said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, a Democrat from Albuquerque. Candidates will spend more time in parts of the country, such as Texas and California, that are not as big of priorities under the current system, in which swing states are key.

“You cannot re-litigate the last election based on a different set of rules,” Ivey-Soto said.

Republicans say the idea would undercut New Mexico’s own political clout.

“Under this bill, the East and West coast will determine the President and it diminishes the impact of votes and our state on a national stage,” Rep. Bill Rehm, a Republican from Albuquerque, said after the measure passed the House last month.

Moreover, critics point out, the bill could put New Mexico in the strange position in the future of putting its electoral college votes behind a candidate who did not win the state.

The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office noted in an analysis of the bill that a candidate who loses an election due to a popular vote compact would likely challenge the arrangement in court.

The Senate Rules Committee advanced the bill with a vote along party lines.

House Bill 55 goes next to the Senate Judiciary Committee. If it clears that panel, it would go to a vote of the full chamber.

The compact would not take effect until states with a total of 270 electoral votes have signed on to the agreement.

Twelve states with a total of 172 electoral votes have joined the compact, including California, Illinois, Maryland and Hawaii.

Colorado’s Legislature passed a similar bill this year. With that, the compact would have 181 electoral votes, still leaving a ways to go before the agreement would take effect.