BY GRANT MORGAN
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – On Tuesday, Capitol News Illinois reported on Springfield GOP Rep. Tim Butler’s bill to change how Illinois allocates its Electoral College votes for president.
Somewhat forgotten, however, is a decade-old law which already binds the state to change its electoral process without having to do anything more.
That law, signed by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2008, included Illinois in a multi-state alliance to effectively bypass the country’s Electoral College.
Rather than award their electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote, the compact requires member states to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.
If enough states sign onto the compact to push their cumulative voting power to more than 270 electoral votes – the amount required to win the presidency – the compact will take effect in the next presidential election cycle.
Thus, the popular vote would decide the winner of the presidency, even without an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
National Popular Vote is the group that advocates for this measure across the country. Their campaign began in 2005, with Illinois being the first state to introduce the legislation and the third to sign it into law.
“Voters want to know their vote is equal to a vote cast anywhere in the country, and [they want] whichever candidate gets the most votes to win,” said Barry Fadem, president of National Popular Vote. “The current method doesn’t deliver on either of those.”
Colorado is the most recent state to join, with Democratic Governor Jared Polis expected to sign the appropriate legislation in the coming week. That would push the compact up to 12 states and the District of Columbia for a total of 181 electoral votes, or more than two-thirds of the required number.
But in Illinois, the issue is largely forgotten – even though it would bind the state to change its electoral process once the compact grows large enough.
“Why I don’t think people are talking about it is because the ball is in other states’ courts now,” said Jay Young, executive director of the nonpartisan Common Cause Illinois, which supports the issue. “Illinois has done its job already.”
Even Rep. Butler, whose bill would move the electoral process in the opposite direction by allocating electoral votes on a congressional-district basis, only learned of Illinois’ 2008 legislation earlier this week.
“That was well before I was in the general assembly,” Butler said. “I really was not aware of that.”
But Butler says he still supports the electoral college, as it allows for greater representation across the country.
“We’re at point where the [political spectrum] is heavily tilted on both coasts, and the middle part of the country would really have no say if it comes to the popular vote,” Butler said.
The Republican Party has benefited from the Electoral College remaining as is. In the past 20 years, a U.S. president has twice been elected to office without winning the popular vote. Both were Republican: George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016.
Yet, when the National Popular Vote bill was moving through the Illinois Legislature, at least one Republican supported it.
Kirk Dillard, a former Republican state senator and current chair of Chicago’s Regional Transit Authority, was the only GOP sponsor of the popular vote legislation in 2008.
While Dillard agrees that most people have forgotten about it, he says he supported the legislation because it would make presidential candidates pay more attention to Illinois.
“In the last several presidential cycles, Illinois had been predominantly Democrat,” Dillard said. “Candidates would avoid Illinois because they thought the state was decided. I thought the citizens of Illinois were being left out.”
Butler, on the other hand, says he prefers to steer the issue away from partisanship.
“For me, it’s not a factor whether Republicans or Democrats win the electoral vote,” he said. “With the electoral college, a lot of areas in the country have more say when it comes to choosing the president.”
At any rate, a change to Illinois’ electoral process will not occur for some time. Butler’s legislation does not have the backing of the dominant state Democratic Party, and the compact is several states away from reaching the 270 vote threshold that would activate it.
“I think it would be very difficult to have it in place for 2020,” said Fadem. “But look how far we’ve come. I think the next tipping point will be when we get up to 200 electoral votes.”
According to Fadem, that might happen by the end of this year, as he expects Nevada, Delaware and Oregon to join the compact soon.
If they do, they will bring Illinois ever so quietly closer to a revamp of its electoral system.