The ballot initiative regarding the National Popular Vote compact is officially on the 2020 ballot, so the campaign begins, both sides preparing to spend a small fortune to convince voters to change — or not change — the Electoral College. Colorado’s initiative process provides citizens the power to veto acts of the Legislature, and there is a good chance voters will decide to do that, though not for the reasons many pundits predict.
Numerous articles and speeches suggest that if Coloradans give away the power of their votes to the larger states, candidates would feel no need to campaign in Colorado. That would end more than a century of important political history.
Since Theodore Roosevelt spent three weeks at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs in 1905, every president but one has visited the Centennial State, some of them many times. So did unsuccessful candidates including Willkie, Dewey, Stevenson, Goldwater, Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Dole, Gore, Kerry, McCain, Romney, and Hillary Clinton. In fact, in 2016 there were no fewer than 19 presidential campaign events in Colorado, and this year at least four candidates for the 2020 election have already been to Colorado. President Obama spent a total of over two weeks in Colorado, including a Grand Junction rally at Cross Orchards, and his acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium. President Trump campaigned in Grand Junction, as well as Pueblo, Denver, and Colorado Springs.
Although they all reportedly enjoyed their visits immensely, they did not come to enjoy the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. They came because Colorado’s electoral votes can decide an election. It is an important “swing state” because it is evenly divided and either side can win it. The state has gone Republican 22 times and Democrat 13 times, including the last three. So many elections are decided by slim margins, that swing states are vital. Many observers wonder, if that were no longer the case, if the Electoral College did not exist, would candidates still need to campaign in the smaller swing states?
I don’t know if most voters are excited by campaign rallies anymore, they are so commonplace. Presidential visits used to provide once-in-a-lifetime excitement, but now they are fairly routine. I am far more worried about what candidates might be promising while campaigning elsewhere — especially in California.
President Taft came to Gunnison and Montrose in 1909 to dedicate the Gunnison Tunnel, providing water to the Uncompahgre Valley and a secure future for Montrose, Olathe, and Delta. President Kennedy came to Pueblo in 1962 to celebrate the Frying Pan-Arkansas project, which provided water to farmers throughout the lower Arkansas Valley (albeit at the cost of Western Slope water). These projects made growth and prosperity possible for numerous Colorado communities. Herbert Hoover came to Grand Junction in the process of negotiating the Interstate Compact, a deal that makes the Colorado River the lifeblood of 30 million people in seven states. It has also been a sore subject for water leaders in California ever since. They continually lobby to rewrite the compact to give California a greater share of the river. Candidates and presidents have stuck with us, refusing to reopen the compact without the consent of all the states.
One candidate famously slipped up on the issue, when John McCain, on a 2008 campaign trip to Pueblo, answered the inevitable water question by saying maybe the Interstate Compact should be re-negotiated. McCain had no idea what a hornet’s nest he had stepped in, but several people immediately told him. National party leaders quickly explained to him that you can never say that in Colorado — a state whose history, economy, culture, and way of life are inexorably tied to the Colorado River, and whose leaders will never stand for “renegotiating” the delicate legal contract that allocates its waters. McCain’s campaign quickly issued a correction, assuring Colorado voters that he would protect their water.
With that exception, presidential candidates carefully avoid that issue, lest they risk losing the electoral votes of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, and Nevada. But there are more voters in California than all the other six states combined, so Coloradans need to ask themselves a very simple question: without the need for electoral votes, why would future candidates NOT promise California more water?
A majority of voters in the U.S. live in just nine states, and Colorado is not one of them. The Electoral College is not irrelevant history. It is a vital protection for the people and communities of small states and rural communities.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He lives on Colorado’s Western Slope.