SALT LAKE CITY — Utah legislators are trying to improve voter confidence in election processes by implementing multiple election-related bills, but one seeks a major change for presidential elections, with the winner simply determined by popular vote.
"No senator, no congressperson, no governor is elected to represent every American," Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, said. "The only office in our country that has the duty of representing all of America is the president of the United States. So in that vein, it holds that if the president is going to represent all of us, we all should have a voice and not have this minority mob rule."
Kitchen is proposing SB121 in an effort to address rising concern about fair elections by ending the "winner-takes-all" style of the Electoral College and replacing it with electors bound by the national popular winner.
The bill has not yet been assigned to a committee for hearing.
Kitchen said he saw "a lot of appetite" locally and nationally for better election policy that would help support higher confidence in elections.
SB121 would have Utah join a "compact" with other states that have put this into law. It doesn't rid a state of the Electoral College system, but uses the framework to a different advantage.
"We have a winner-take-all system, this would replace it with a system that follows one simple rule: The candidate who receives the most votes in all 50 states should be elected president," Kitchen said.
Currently, there is no federal law that says a slate of electors must vote for the candidate who wins the national popular vote. State law or party politics determine how Electoral College voters must cast their ballot.
A popular vote system would reward population growth. Utah's rapidly growing population should be rewarded with more political power and greater voice in electing the president, but our current system prevents that.
–Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City
In Utah, electors now vote for the candidate who won the most votes in the state, no matter the margin. Most states follow this "winner-take-all" format. When a candidate reaches 270 electoral votes, they are declared the winner. In this system, more populous states have more electoral votes, and often garner much more attention from candidates during campaigns.
Kitchen agreed that under his bill, even though Donald Trump had more votes in Utah, the state's electoral votes would go to Joe Biden who won the popular vote nationally.
Kitchen believes the changes would prevent a person with fewer popular votes from winning the presidency as has happened twice in the past 20 years.
According to the Federal Election Commission, in 2000 George W. Bush won 47.87% of the popular vote compared to Al Gore's 48.38%, but Bush still won the presidency with 271 electoral votes to Gore's 266. In 2016, Donald Trump had 46.09% of the popular vote compared to Hillary Clinton's 48.18%. However, Trump won 304 electoral votes, making him president.
Kitchen compared the two models of electing a president and said "neither party has a consistent advantage in the Electoral College or the national popular vote model."
He continued: "It would encourage more civic engagement, states with higher turnout would have an advantage. Voter turnout is significantly lower in states that receive no presidential attention."
He also said that while Utah is one of the fastest growing states in the country, it won't have more congressional representation — and more electoral votes — for maybe another decade.
"A popular vote system would reward population growth. Utah's rapidly growing population should be rewarded with more political power and greater voice in electing the president, but our current system prevents that," Kitchen said.
He said Utah would become "more competitive" and that it would allow every individual vote in all 50 states to be "equally valuable." Kitchen said that presidential candidates would campaign "beyond the 12 swing states that dominate our current system" if there was a national popular vote.
He does not agree that a new system would mean minority parties and beliefs would overtake Utah.
"The idea that this somehow favors Democrats or gets to the big cities, and supports them more, is just not true. In fact, the contrary is likely to be true, which is that it would encourage more civic participation," Kitchen said.
Kitchen is the first Democrat to take up the bill idea that had Republican sponsors in the past, including former Rep. Jeremy Peterson in 2018 and former Sen. Howard Stephenson in 2017.
"I think what that shows is that this is a bipartisan issue," Kitchen said.
Other election bills making their way through the legislative process include HB70, by Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, for improved ballot tracking and HB196 by Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, for clarity on judicial retention of sitting judges.
Both HB196 and HB70 passed through the House Government Operations Committee, Monday with unanimous recommendations to the full House.