Left: Ingle, Right: Pirtle
SANTA FE — The New Mexico Senate by a party-line vote Monday approved a bill that would award the state’s five electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes nationally.
All 26 Democratic senators voted for the bill and all 16 Republicans opposed the measure in which New Mexico would join an inter-state compact to elect U.S. presidents by popular vote, perhaps a predictable outcome three months after Republican Donald Trump lost the popular vote but handily won the presidency in the Electoral College.
The bill now moves to the New Mexico House of Representatives, also controlled by Democrats. If it passes the House, the state Senate’s minority floor leader said it surely will be vetoed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.
“The votes are there to do it if they want to do it,” state Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said of House Democrats. “I can’t speak for the rural Democrats there that can change things. I would say it has a chance of passing (the House), but it also has a tremendous chance of being voted. There won’t be a veto override. It can be proposed, but the votes won’t be there.”
Overriding a veto requires a two-thirds vote in both the state Senate and House.
Ingle and state Sen. Cliff Pirtle said the inter-state compact to elect U.S. presidents by popular vote is a bad idea.
“It’s a bad idea to give up our sovereign right to elect the president,” said Pirtle, R-Roswell. “The current system of the Electoral College actually benefits the most rural states, New Mexico being a rural state. We have more electoral votes per capita than New York and California. It helps smaller [auth] populations have some influence on an election. So I think it would be a bad idea to basically give up our right to elect a president to the most populated states.”
Ingle also said the bill would delude the electoral power of smaller-population states like New Mexico.
“New Mexico will basically be a forgotten state,” said Ingle, whose District 27 includes Chaves County north of Mescalero Road in Roswell. “We’re not going to have a population enough to swing an election. As it is, we don’t have as many (presidential candidates) come by as they should. Without the electoral part of it, it’s not something that would be good for New Mexico at all.”
The sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said the Electoral College allows presidential candidates to ignore most voters because it largely functions as a winner-take-all system in individual states.
“Candidates have no reason to pay attention to states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind,” Stewart said.
In addition, she said, minority-party voters in heavily Republican or overwhelmingly Democratic states believe that their votes don’t matter because the Electoral College takes precedence over the popular vote.
Other Republican senators said the bill would rob New Mexico residents of power. State Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington, said America’s founders devised the electoral college system because they didn’t want the population centers of New York, Boston and Philadelphia to solely decide who would be president. By creating the Electoral College, the founders gave voice to voters in places such as rural South Carolina and the small state of Rhode Island, he said.
Sharer said America is a representative republic and criticized Stewart and other Democrats for trying to turn presidential elections into a democracy.
“I believe, with all due respect to the sponsors, that this is ignorant,” Sharer said.
Ingle said when state senators were elected by county in New Mexico, rural communities had more influence in the Legislature.
“When New Mexico had one senator for every county, the Senate was a much different place,” he said. “Now, three counties run the Senate, or can. It’s the same thing in the United States.”
Democratic senators were equally strident in supporting the bill.
“This is a very fundamental concept. One person, one vote, self-determination,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces.
Stewart said the Electoral College causes presidential candidates to overlook New Mexico because it is not seen as a battleground or swing state. Her proposal, Senate Bill 42, would make New Mexico part of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Participating states agree to award their Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote.
“The other major issue I brought up (Monday) in debate was that no candidate received 50 percent of the popular vote,” Pirtle said of the 2016 presidential election. “So it becomes even more problematic with does the person have to win the popular vote, or just have the most votes? They kept saying Hillary (Clinton) won the popular vote, but she didn’t. She only had 48 percent.”
Ten states, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, and the District of Columbia joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact between 2007 and 2014, and more states are weighing whether to join.
The agreement by states to pledge all their Electoral College votes to the winner of the popular vote would take effect when enough states join to account for at least 270 electoral votes, the minimum number needed to elect a president. So far, Washington, D.C., and the 10 states in the compact have a total of 165 electoral votes.
The 10 states and D.C. have all consistently favored the Democratic presidential nominee in recent elections. Many of them, such as California and New York, haven’t favored a Republican presidential candidate in the popular vote since Ronald Reagan won 49 states in 1984.
No Republican-leaning state is part of the compact, nor are any expected to join it.
Trump won last year’s election with 304 electoral college votes compared to 227 for Clinton. Trump built his margin in the Electoral College by winning 30 states, and also winning one three electoral votes in Maine. Maine and Nebraska are the only two states that award electoral votes to winners of congressional districts, as well as the winner of the popular vote.
Clinton took 20 states and the District of Columbia. Overall, though, Clinton received 2.6 million more popular votes than Trump.
The outcome marked the fifth time in U.S. history that a president was elected without receiving the most popular votes.
“I just don’t think we need to go there,” Ingle said. “This has happened five or six times in our elections. It happened with Kennedy and Nixon. Kennedy won, Nixon won the popular vote. The thing of it, it’s just not something that I think is good for the United States to have eight states control an election, because then they’ll control everything. We have no chance without it.”
Republican senators said Clinton bested Trump in the popular vote based on her strong showings in California, the most populous state, and New York, the fourth-largest state. Trump won easily in Texas and by a close margin in Florida, the second- and third-largest states in population, respectively.
Stewart countered that electing the president based on popular vote would be the fairest system to everyone.
“The current system of electing the president of the United States leads to the voices of New Mexico voters being overlooked and ignored,” she said in a news release. “Too many New Mexicans feel like they have been left out of the process in deciding who will serve as our nation’s leader. By doing our part to move towards a national popular vote we can begin the process of regaining the voters’ trust in our elections and ensure their voices are equal to every voter across the country.”
Pirtle said the Electoral College protects rural states from being dominated by urban areas in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
“Just as many of the debates with the New Mexico Legislature are not Republican versus Democrat, many of the debates are urban versus rural,” Pirtle said. “Essentially what eliminating the Electoral College would do is make it where the most urbanized areas would dictate the direction of the country, as opposed to the balance that we enjoy today.
“The main point is the way we elect our president was established to ensure that the rural states had as much of an equal voice as they could. States like Wyoming have twice as many U.S. senators as U.S. representatives. As a sovereign state, they have that equal two Electoral College votes like all other states.”
Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080. Follow his Ringside Seat column at santafenewmexican.com. Daily Record senior writer Jeff Tucker contributed to this report.