Michigan could join states in the national popular vote compact. So what would that mean?

Republicans aren’t signing onto the legislation as they have in the past

By: - May 10, 2023 4:09 am

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Legislation has been reintroduced this session to change the way Michigan’s electoral votes are awarded, which supporters hope will eventually result in the presidency always being awarded to whichever candidate wins the most votes nationally.

Now with Democrats in charge of both houses of the Legislature, advocates see an opening for the bills to finally move forward.

Currently, 48 of the 50 states, along with the District of Columbia, award their electoral votes based on which candidate gets the most votes in that particular state. The only exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, which partly award electoral votes based on congressional district.

However, because electoral votes are allocated based on each state’s population, plus the number of senators and representatives in its U.S congressional delegation, it is possible for candidates to gain the presidency by winning the right combination of states while still losing the popular vote nationwide. 

Just ask Hillary Clinton and Al Gore.

Enter the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, in which members pledge to award their electoral votes to whoever wins the national popular vote. Fifteen states and Washington, D.C., have already joined the compact, totaling 195 out of the 270 electoral votes needed to be elected President. Should Michigan join, its 15 electoral votes would put the compact just 60 electoral votes shy of taking effect. 

Legislation is also moving forward in Minnesota, Alaska and Nevada.

Rep. Carrie Rheingans, March 7, 2023 | Michigan House screenshot

State Rep. Carrie Rheingans (D-Ann Arbor) is leading the effort to make the compact a reality in Michigan. In March, the first-term legislator introduced House Bill 4156, which would make Michigan the 16th state to join the compact. Companion legislation, Senate Bill 126, was also introduced by state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit).

“People want their vote to count,” Rheingans told the Michigan Advance. “They want their vote to be equal. Right now we have an election of the battleground states in America. I mean, to be honest, we don’t have a presidential election of all of the United States of America. Presidential candidates spend their time and their money in battleground states.”

Rheingans said a perfect example of that was seen in 2012 when groups allied with the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney saw polling data that he was losing in Michigan.

“So they pulled all their money out and put it into other states,” she said. “And Republicans in Michigan I’m sure were like, ‘Excuse me? Keep campaigning, you might win.’ So it’s really not fair to voters to be disregarded like that.”

Rheingans’ bill was sent to the House Elections Committee, which held a hearing March 7. 

Testifying in favor of the bill were representatives from a coalition of groups including the League of Women Voters, Mothering Justice, Common Cause Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Conservatives for National Popular Vote.

Judy Karandjeff, chair of the League of Women Voters of Michigan’s Advocacy Committee, said the national organization had supported the compact for a decade and was “thrilled” at the possibility of passing the reform in Michigan this year.

“Voters in the last election sent a clear message that rejected efforts to undermine our elections and politicians who want to weaken our democracy,” said Karandjeff. “In recent elections, virtually all of the general election campaign events were concentrated in about a dozen battleground states. The politically irrelevant spectator states, home to between 70 and 80% of the country’s rural states, western states, southern states, and northeastern states, governance, not just campaigning, is distorted by the concentration of attention on just a few states.”

Karandjeff added that in the 2024 presidential election, nine states are predicted to be competitive in the presidential election. 

“These states can expect to receive 100% of the attention while the other 80% of voters are completely ignored,” she said.

Courtney Blake Sims of Mothering Justice, March 7, 2023 | Michigan House screenshot

Also in support of the legislation is Courtney Blake Sims with advocacy group Mothering Justice, who said younger voters know better than most how the current system needs reform.

“We’re particularly hopeful that we’ll see an increase in voter engagement amongst our youngest voters,” she said. “More than half of Generation Z is now old enough to vote and they are uniquely affected by this inequitable system. The oldest millennials cast their first ballots in a presidential race in 2000 and saw George W. Bush win the presidency despite losing the popular vote by more than 540,000 votes. The youngest millennials cast their first ballot in a presidential race in 2016 and saw Donald Trump win the presidency despite Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by 2.8 million votes. 

“These two generations of Americans have been reminded repeatedly throughout their lives that their votes for president don’t matter nearly as much as what state they cast their ballot in. I hope we can fix this for all of their sake,” Blake Sims added.

One of those speaking in opposition at the hearing was Sean Parnell, a registered lobbyist representing Save Our States Action, a group with connections to People for Opportunity, Inc., an Oklahoma-based 501(c)(4) that, according to its website, advocates for school choice, eliminating the personal income tax, criminal justice reform, and giving Oklahoma’s governor sole discretion on judicial appointments to the state’s appellate courts.

Parnell testified that the compact would mean Michigan voters would “no longer be entrusted with the power to choose which presidential candidate deserves the state’s support and electoral votes,” and that in his view “eliminating Michigan’s voice in the presidential election process would be unfortunate, as I believe (the) Electoral College preserves and protects the vital role that states play in our federal nation.”

Parnell also spoke to what he saw as the “core defect” of the compact.

“There is no official national vote count that can be used for this compact,” he said. “No national agency, commission or official will produce a certified vote total for every presidential candidate, and the compact does not create an agency, commission, or official that will do so.”

Sean Parnell,, March 7, 2023 | Michigan House screenshot

Instead, Parnell said the compact leaves it to the chief election official of each member state, “acting independently, to obtain vote totals from other states and tabulate them to determine which candidate received the most votes nationally.” 

He compared it to adding fractions when the denominator isn’t the same. 

“You have to convert, you have to do stuff, but there’s no obvious easy way to do those conversions,” he said. “There’s no obvious easy way to figure out what the official vote count is.”

However, Rheingans says that criticism misses the point as each state is already required by federal law to produce an official tally of its vote totals.

“In my talks with Michigan’s secretary of state [Jocelyn Benson], she knows that she must create a certificate of ascertainment when our votes are all counted here in Michigan and publish that publicly online under our bill,” said Rheingans. “It would also ask her to share it proactively so that all of the states can very quickly see how many popular votes went to each presidential candidate and would be able to add them together to see what the national popular vote was.”

Furthermore, the Electoral Count Reform Act of 2022 requires states to produce timely official vote totals before the Electoral College meets.

Also testifying in opposition to the legislation was John J. Crawford, representing Keep Our 50 States. Crawford, who is a proponent of the birther lie that former President Barack Obama wasn’t a U.S. citizen, called the compact a “collusion agreement,” that was at odds with what the founders of the nation intended.

“The Founders weren’t stumped on this thing,” said Crawford. “The founders were crystal clear when you read the minutes from the Constitutional Convention. They picked this up four or five different times about the popular vote to elect the chief executive, and they rejected it. And they finally settled that after four months of debate in Philadelphia. And they said, ‘Well, let’s have the states do it, and they’re going to do it by naming electors, and they’re going be the most smartest guys in the state.’ The only thing the Electoral College is, is the states electing the President of the United States.”

However, Rheingans rejects that line of reasoning outright, noting the “winner-take-all” method of awarding electors is not in the U.S. Constitution. 

“Our U.S. Constitution gives only one body the power to determine how a state awards its electoral college votes, and that is a state legislature,” she said. “So what I am proposing that we do is use the power granted to us as a state legislature, granted to us by the U.S. Constitution, to determine how to award our electoral college votes. And I propose that we award our vote so that they align with the will of the people of the district of the president. 

John J. Crawford, March 7, 2023 | Michigan House screenshot

“You know, I had to win the most popular votes in my district in order to be elected. And I think the President should have to win the most votes in their district, the only office that has the district of the entire United States. So they should have to win the most popular votes in the entire United States.”

In fact, the “winner-take-all” method was only used by three states in the nation’s first presidential election in 1789, and only gradually through the 19th century did other states come to employ it. 

There’s also the historical context that the Electoral College was created under, namely that the framework was a compromise at the Constitutional Convention to appease the concerns of southern states that enslaved hundreds of thousands (and eventually millions) of people of African descent and wished to continue to do so.

Blake Sims says that is an important point that can’t be emphasized enough when discussing the “tradition” of the Electoral College,

“The ongoing impression of privilege that comes with electing a president is downright racist, and stems from the racism of the three-fifths compromise; just one example of how deeply ingrained racism is in our country’s history,” she said. “This continues to affect us today, as black and brown moms are deeply disenfranchised due to gender, class and ethnicity. The lack of representation contributes to the imbalance of resources and power, as evident by the disproportionate representation of people of color in positions of power. 

“The fact that we have only had one Black president in our nation’s history is a testament to this ongoing inequality,” Blake Sims said. “And because presidential candidates aren’t incentivized to care about the needs of black voters, our issues are rarely addressed and are frequently neglected.”

While none of the testimony in March directly addressed that issue, one of the Republicans in support of the bill, former House Speaker Chuck Perricone, cautioned the committee that the seriousness of the issue needed to transcend the traditional political divide.

“Don’t let anyone politicize this issue,” he said. “This is the most sacred component of democracy there is. It’s one person, one vote. Shame on anyone that tries to turn that into politics. We have history — women’s suffrage, the Voting Rights Act with African Americans. They didn’t fight for the Electoral College. They were out there for one person, one vote. You know that. So do I. Let’s be honest. We’ve got to take a look at that for that reason.”

Perricone was then questioned by Rep. Rachelle Smit (R-Martin), the committee’s minority vice chair.

“Is there anything that would prohibit California from allowing a 6-year-old to vote?” she said. “This has no impact under current law on Michigan’s 15 electoral votes, but under the national popular vote, it could impact our electoral vote, correct?”

Perricone said he didn’t know the answer to that unlikely hypothetical from a legal standpoint, but did make two points about California.

“In 2012, 12 states received all 100% of the general election campaign events,” he said. “California was not one of them. In 2020, there were 12 states that received 96% of the general election campaign events. California was not one of them. So whether or not that 6-year-old can vote, they’re not going to be attending a presidential campaign event, and they should be whether they can or not. And today with the electoral college, that doesn’t happen. That’s the problem. Most states are flyover states. That’s not what anybody envisioned.”

GOP former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville also testified in favor of the legislation.

Rep. Rachelle Smit, May 2, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

However, none of the currently serving Republicans in the Michigan House or Senate have signed on to this latest effort, which is a distinct change from 2018, when 25 Michigan senators — 15 Republicans and 10 Democrats — co-sponsored a similar bill. And while it failed to gain passage that session, it was still seen as a bipartisan effort.

When asked why there was no GOP support for the current effort, Smit told the Advance that there are concerns within the caucus about the bill as proposed.

“In my discussions with the House Republicans, I am not hearing any support thus far,” she said. “Some very obvious reasons may be an argument that Michigan would not be a state where any presidential candidate would come to campaign. Our vote would be diluted here in Michigan and the focus would simply be on the large cities such as California and New York. Political parties should focus on winning over voters in states like Michigan. Also, this compact isn’t getting rid of the Electoral College, but rather a makeshift scheme to circumvent the constitutional amendment process.”

Rheingans said the legislation has the backing of Democratic leadership in both legislative chambers as well as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and she expects that once the state’s budget is squared away, the bills will move toward a vote and eventual passage whether Republicans vote for it or not.

A Republican who believes the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact does not provide a partisan advantage is former Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis, a consultant to National Popular Vote (NPV), a 501(c)(4) nonprofit coordinating the compact.

“This is one of these nonpartisan bipartisan bills,” he told the Advance. “It’s a very unique process because it’s fundamentally just electoral reform at the core of it. I would argue there’s not a partisan advantage to Republicans or Democrats. It’s just a quintessentially fair reform that makes sure that every state is a battleground state every year.”

Anuzis said he first became involved in the effort back in 2008 when he was the state’s GOP chair. 

“Michigan was a battleground state … and then we weren’t,” he said, laughing. “[Republican nominee John] McCain fell 12 points down in the polls in Michigan and they pulled out near the end of the [2008] campaign, and it had a devastating effect down-ticket.”

In my discussions with the House Republicans, I am not hearing any support thus far. Some very obvious reasons may be an argument that Michigan would not be a state where any presidential candidate would come to campaign. Our vote would be diluted here in Michigan and the focus would simply be on the large cities such as California and New York.

– Rep. Rachelle Smit (R-Martin)

Anuzis, who has joined with former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer in supporting the effort, says it’s not the Electoral College that’s the problem, but instead the “winner-take-all” system used to allocate the electors.

“That’s the problem,” Anuzis said. “Because four out of five Americans live in a state that’s either decidedly Republican or decidedly Democrat. And so by definition, because it’s a winner-take-all system, you ignore those states, and that’s bad for the process. It perverts public policy and it perverts politics in the sense that battleground states get more attention, have more influence than non-battleground states.”

When asked why currently elected Republicans aren’t joining in the effort, Anuzis said he didn’t have a clear answer for that and argued opponents don’t have a strong case.

“All they’re trying to do is confuse things right now, and they’re trying to make it partisan, saying this (NPV) advantages Democrats,” he said. “I would argue the current system advantages Democrats. Mark Brewer, and I, when we’ve done a couple of events together, Mark thinks it’s a center-left nation, more people share his values than mine. I think it’s a center-right nation, more people share my values than his. It really will be a function of who’s got a better candidate and who delivers a better message.”


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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King is the Senior Reporter for the Michigan Advance and has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2022 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell.