Campaign launching in Michigan to pick president by popular vote

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A petition campaign is launching in Michigan on Monday to have the state join a movement aimed at picking future presidents through the national popular vote instead of the traditional Electoral College process.

Featuring support from former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer and former state Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, a group called Yes on National Popular Vote says it will try to gather 340,047 signatures to force votes on the policy in the state Legislature or on a future statewide ballot.

Brewer and Anuzis plan to submit the petition on Tuesday to the Board of State Canvassers, where it will be reviewed to ensure it takes the proper form and summary required by Michigan petition laws. 

“Michigan should join 15 other states and move this country toward a national popular vote for president,” said Anuzis. “Every person in Michigan who believes in the principle of one person, one vote for presidential elections should join our effort today.”

Brewer and Anuzis said they expect the effort will be funded with backing from both Republican and Democratic donors and grassroots supporters. 

"You all and the public are going to see every penny we raise from every source that we raise it," Brewer said. "It’s going to be completely transparent.”

Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist opens the state's Electoral College session at the state Capitol, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 in Lansing, Mich.

As it stands, each state is designated a number of Electoral College votes based on its membership level in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. In 2020, Michigan had 16 votes — a total that matched its 14 U.S. House members and two U.S. senators.

Most states award their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote within their borders, and whichever candidate gets a majority, 270, of the 538 total electoral votes wins the presidency. The system sets up a situation in which a candidate can win the popular vote nationally but not the country's top office, as happened in the 2016 race between eventual president Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Supporters of the national popular vote movement are attempting to get enough states to join a compact pledging to give their electoral votes to the winner of the raw national vote total. For the compact to work and take effect, the movement needs enough states to match 270 electoral votes.

So far, 16 jurisdictions, 15 states and Washington, D.C., have joined with 195 electoral votes, according to the organization National Popular Vote. However, tallies for tracking the status of the effort can differ.

If Michigan signed on, the effort would move closer to the 270-vote threshold.

Supporters of the idea have contended that the current system incentivizes presidential candidates to only focus on certain battleground states and ignore states that heavily favor one party over another and whose results aren't in question.

"The practical matter today is we basically elect the president of the battleground states of America versus the president of the United States of America," Anuzis said.

Opponents of joining the popular vote compact have emphasized that the system protects states' power and that Michigan is among those that do draw presidential candidates' attention.

The conservative Michigan Freedom Fund came out swinging against the proposal, arguing that a national popular vote would center "political power and decision-making in the nation’s biggest cities where liberal elites have assembled en masse."

“Liberals are obsessed with forcing Americans to conform to their radical agenda, and this is just another attempt to do just that by using large states like California and New York to impose their will on the rest of the country — in this case, a Democrat President," said Tori Sachs, executive director for the Michigan Freedom Fund.

Merrill Matthews, resident scholar for the conservative-leaning Institute for Policy Innovation, said changing the system to a national popular vote is a "terrible idea." He argued the electoral college system was set up in an attempt to give lower-populated states a voice in the presidential election. 

"The notion is you want the minority to have something of a say and not completely be overridden by the majority," Matthews said. 

"You have over 50% of the population in nine states," he said. "If you focused on the top 10, 11 or 12 states, you might be able to get enough states to sway the whole election your way. That’s the concern.”

Anuzis acknowledged the current system benefited Republicans in 2000 and 2016, but it hasn't always worked in favor of the Michigan party. In 2008, when former U.S. Sen. John McCain ran for president, Michigan was relevant up until an October poll when McCain's campaign found he was down several points. 

"They pulled out of Michigan," Anuzis said. "From a Republican standpoint, it had a devastating effect on us down ticket as Republicans were completely demoralized that our presidential candidate no longer cared whether they were going to campaign or not."

Michigan may currently hold the distinction of being a battleground state that attracts candidate visits, rallies and campaigns, but that can easily disappear, Brewer said. 

"Things change in politics," Brewer said. "There were decades — decades and decades — where Michigan was completely irrelevant to the national presidential election because either one party or the other could take it for granted.

"This ensures that will never happen to Michigan again," he said.

National Popular Vote, which features both Anuzis and former state Rep. Rebekah Warren, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, on its website, has been urging state lawmakers to take up the idea for years. The nonprofit organization reported spending $26,501 lobbying Michigan officeholders in 2018.