Lawmakers seek to change how Utah votes for president
Politics • Differing approaches with one aim: Make  sure  votes  count,  boost  voter  participation.
Published: February 11, 2012 07:34AM
Updated: February 10, 2012 11:33PM
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File Photo | The Salt Lake Tribune Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is proposing that Utah joins a national movement to ensure that the president who wins the popular vote is elected.

Two legislators are pushing bills to change how Utahns help elect the U.S. president — but each would do it in vastly different ways.

Rep. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, is pushing SB63 for Utah to join a growing compact of states that would pledge to give their Electoral College votes to whoever wins the national popular vote.

Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, wrote HB509 to let Utahns directly elect the state’s six official electors (each state receives one vote for each member of Congress it has). Currently, the party of the winning candidate here chooses the electors. Powell’s system could allow splitting Utah’s official presidential vote.

“The way we elect presidents is broken, and it is not what the founders envisioned,” Stephenson said.

He says they never intended that someone could win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote and election — which happened in 2000 with George W. Bush and Al Gore, in 1876 with Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, and 1888 with Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland.

Stephenson contends that the Electoral College was first formed to choose wise people who could ensure election of a qualified candidate, and it also was a compromise to ensure small states had a little extra voice to ensure they are not overrun by bigger states. He says the Constitution does not require that all of a state’s electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the popular vote there, but most states chose to do that over time in the 19th century.

He blames that winner-takes-all-system for allowing someone to win the popular vote but lose the election, and says it makes candidates cater to 11 swing states to the exclusion of others.

“People are getting wise to the fact that it doesn’t matter how you vote for president in Utah,” because its official Electoral College votes will go to the Republican, he said. “But if every vote counted, it would matter — and our voting percentages would increase dramatically.”

His bill would have Utah join a compact that ­— when enough have joined so that they would have a 270-vote majority of the Electoral College — they would pledge to give their official votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

Stephenson’s bill was supported Friday at a Capitol rally by College Republicans and College Democrats from the University of Utah.

“If you cast a vote in a non-swing state, no matter which party, your vote doesn’t count,” said Oakley Gordon, of the College Democrats.

But the measure has critics.

“Any Republican student that went [to the rally], doesn’t understand it,” Enid Mickelsen, Utah’s Republican national committeewoman, said. “The National Popular Vote is an attempt to amend the Constitution by doing away with the impact of the Electoral College, without having to go through the bother of amending the Constitution.”

Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, says the intent of the proposal is good, but he doesn’t think enough time and thought has been put into it.

And Powell disputes that the system Stephenson proposes is closer to what the Founding Fathers envisioned. He said his idea is.

“People would directly vote for our electors. Those electors would then choose whom to vote for,” and would not necessarily be bound to any candidate — but they could campaign by pledging to support a specific candidate if they chose.

“That is closer to what was originally envisioned,” he said. It could lead to splitting the vote. For example, Democrats could run only one or two electors and focus their votes on them — perhaps giving them enough for an official elector if Republicans split their votes among many electors.

Powell said that would also make all votes truly count. It also preserves the extra voting power that the Electoral College gives to small states like Utah — because they tend to receive more electoral votes per resident since their senators represent fewer people but still bring an electoral vote.

For example, in the 2008 election, Wyoming had one electoral vote for about every 85,000 voters, and California had one for every 255,000.

“I think my system would have more benefits,” Powell said.

— Britny Mortensen contributed to this report.

Where are they?

Neither bill has yet been assigned to a committee for public debate.

SB63 • Is in the Senate Rules Committee awaiting assignment

HB509 • Is still being drafted