The Western Land, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States, nervous as horses before a thunderstorm.
The Grapes of Wrath
Bunnie Keen has a good ear. She can tune a piano. She is attuned to airplanes flying over Utah, delivering presidential candidates to battleground states like Colorado and Nevada. And, with ear-to-the-ground sensitivity, she can register the distant thunder of electoral reform.
When such change looms, there are three options: accede, resist, foster. Keen has chosen the third. New to the front rank of activism, she was energized by the outcome of the 2016 election. That Donald Trump became president after Hillary Clinton outpolled him by almost 3 million votes was a clarion call to action.
Keen is a Democrat. She is spearheading the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPV) initiative in Utah with the help of Stan Lockhart, a prominent name in Republican circles. The two plan to have NPV in place in Utah before 2020. To do that, the Keen-Lockhart partnership will have to persuade legislators to change state law so that Utah's six electoral votes are no longer decided by a winner-take-all method based on the popular vote within the state. Instead, those electoral votes would go to the winner of the national election.
So long, battleground states; hello, battleground nation!
The winner-take-all method is not mandated by the constitution. Maine and Nebraska don't use it. Keen argues that it disenfranchises millions of voters. For example, 627,000 Utahns voted Independent, Libertarian or Democrat in 2016. In California, 5,514,000 did not vote Democrat. The winner-take-all system effectively nullified those votes when California went blue; Utah, red. The alternative, NPV, "means no voter left behind," she says.
NPV has been introduced in the Utah Legislature five or six times in the past 10 years. Its advocates have included former Utah Sens. Jake Garn and Bob Bennett. The measure has languished in committee partly because of opposition from the Utah Eagle Forum and Sutherland Institute. The conservative twosome is nervous as a horse in a thunderstorm as NPV gains traction. "Illegal and immoral" is how the Eagle Forum disparages NPV on its website. Both organizations fear an "endless train of liberal presidents"; a loss of Western states' political influence; and a drift away from a republic toward a pure democracy in which citizens vote directly on laws instead of electing lawmakers. Pure democracy equates to "mob rule" in their view, and NPV threatens "the virtues of the Republican form of government." Having sat through a good many New England town meetings—where voters debated school budgets, leash laws and police equipment for hours—the worst thing I can say about pure democracy is that it can be tedious.
In singing the praises of the Electoral College, the Eagle Forum and the Sutherland Institute seem untroubled by the five times in U.S. history that it trumped the popular vote. Nor are they bothered that less than a dozen states—the so-called battleground states—have determined the outcome of recent elections. As a reliably red state, Utah gets flyover-status neglect from campaign strategists. NPV would change that, Keen says.
Implementation is pretty straightforward, an exercise in fourth-grade math. Once NPV has been enacted in enough states to corral a majority of the Electoral College's 538 votes—a minimum of 270— it is a fait accompli. "It is a normal and constitutionally appropriate way to make the change," Keen says. Ten states and the District of Columbia, which have 165 electoral votes between them, are already committed. "Utah is poised to be the first conservative state to join," she says with a smile
The season of citizen activism has arrived after a long, hot, ozoney summer. I can't help thinking about Bob Dylan's lyric: "There was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air." Besides Keen, a handful of reform-minded people have big plans for Utah. The Legislature's refusal to act on issues favored by a plurality of Utahns has created fertile ground for grassroots initiative. The Better Boundaries Campaign is a good example. Its goal is to end gerrymandering by appointing an independent commission to draw congressional boundaries. The majority of Utahns, 65-plus percent, agree. But Utah is the state that was called out by the conservative Wall Street Journal in 2001 as one of the nation's worst offenders of partisan gerrymandering. Subsequent bills to establish an unbiased redistricting commission were stifled in the Legislature's back rooms. With the Supreme Court taking up partisan gerrymandering in the case of Gill v. Whitford this week, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes filed a friend-of-the- court brief defending the practice.
Citizen's initiative petitions on medical marijuana, school funding, caucus nominations and term limits are either underway or pending. I assume the Sutherland Institute, whose core principles extol "community-driven solutions that inspire citizens to act," welcomes these overdue developments
Keen and leaders of several other nonpartisan voting organizations are holding a joint event, "It's your vote—make it count," on Oct. 7 from noon-3 p.m. at the Viridian Event Center (8030 S. 1825 West, West Jordan). In addition to free hotdogs and apple pie, attendees can talk with representatives from the Utah League of Women Voters, Better Boundaries, Represent Me Utah, NPV and Ranked Choice Voting.
Keen knows from experience that Utah conservatives are dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists. They are leery of departures from the status quo. But she hears the winds of change stirring in the West. "The thing that keeps me going is being a part of history," she says.
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