Watch Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea on the National Popular Vote

In case you missed it, here is the keynote address from Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea from the Making Every Vote Count conference last week.

Here are her remarks, as prepared:

Thank you, James Glassman, Steve Clemons, Bob Cusack, Matt Shapanka and the rest of the Making Every Vote Count team for helping us have a very important series of conversations on a key evolutionary moment for American democracy. 

This may seem quaint, but I believe that government should be accountable to the people it serves, and all voters should feel like their voices are heard. 

I was elected as Rhode Island’s Secretary of State in 2014. I ran for office because I wanted to make government work for everyone.

As a Latina, as a Puerto Rican, as a woman, I am personally aware that U.S. democracy, while a wonderful contribution to our world, is definitely a work in progress. And, sadly, despite the work done over the past two centuries - that feeling that government can work for everyone is missing in many parts of our country right now.

Except for in a handful of battleground states, most people think their vote doesn’t matter in the presidential race. That’s why we’re seeing a groundswell of support for the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

 Polls show more than two-thirds of Americans want the president to be elected by popular vote. That desire has sparked several efforts over the years, from Dr. John Koza and the National Popular Vote Group, to Common Cause, and of course, Making Every Vote Count.

While these groups may have different versions of how a popular vote system would work, I think we can all agree on why this reform needed. 

For me, one of the most striking arguments for the popular vote comes from our young people. I’ve made engaging young voters one of my key missions as Secretary of State. And we’ve had real success in Rhode Island in getting more young people to vote.

In the 2018 election, Rhode Island saw a 64% increase in 18-to-20-year-old voters. One way we’ve been able to engage young people in voting has been through high school class elections. This is where Rhode Island’s small size is a real asset. I literally get to travel to every corner of the state.

In those travels, I’ve visited dozens of high schools where the Department of State helps students run elections for their class leaders. It’s terrific. We bring in real voting machines and real ballots, just like election day. The kids really get into it too. They give speeches and debate issues with their classmates. You can tell there is a certain joy in seeing their name or their friends’ names on the ballot. They know their vote will really matter. Someone they know will experience the joy of winning and others will feel the sadness of defeat. 

My goal with this program is to have every Rhode Island high schooler personally experience voting before they graduate. That way, they’re familiar with the entire process when it comes time to vote for real. We’re helping set them on a path to civic engagement in adulthood.

But I must tell you, almost every time I talk with these kids, I get a question on the electoral college. They want me to explain how can it be that after so much encouragement to vote, when it comes to President of the United States, their vote “doesn’t matter.” 

Plain and simple, the Electoral College makes it so much harder to help people feel that voting and civic engagement are critical to democracy. And unfortunately, a lot of those kids’ parents feel like their votes don’t matter either. In a deep blue, small state like Rhode Island, people feel ignored by presidential candidates.

That’s why Rhode Island passed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact in 2013. 

And support for the Compact is growing. There are a lot of people in other states that feel the same way. When Rhode Island joined, the Compact accounted for 132 electoral votes. Now it’s up to 196, with another 90 pending. 

So, it’s approaching the 270 electoral votes needed to take effect. That means we’re at an important point right now where we need to do a couple of things:

One: we need to get across the finish line and make the popular vote a reality.

And two: we need to figure out how we’re going to count the votes when that happens.

Today I’ll talk about ways we can break down barriers to getting the Compact passed. And perhaps most importantly, I’ll look at some of conversations we need to have next, to make sure we’re prepared.

I think one of the most important messages when it comes to getting the Compact passed is this - the popular vote is not about partisan politics! This is not about the 2016 election. Support for the Compact goes back way further than 2016.

The Washington Post did a poll on the popular vote in 2007 and found support among ALL voters:

  • 78% of Democrats were in favor;

  • As were 60% of Republicans;

  • And 73% of independents.

There’s even Gallup polling going back to the 1940’s that shows the majority of the public supporting a popular vote.

So, what’s the hold up? Well, for one thing, change is scary. And when it comes to changing how we elect the president, well, that’s really scary for some people.

Here’s something to keep in mind the next time you talk to someone who feels that way – our democracy was designed to change with the times. Just look at the Constitution. It was meant to be a living document. There’s a reason we’ve amended it 27 times and counting. It was designed to evolve as our country grew and changed.

Now, I know critics of the Compact will point out that it’s not a Constitutional amendment. But the “winner-take-all” way we allocate electors isn’t in the Constitution at all. It was adopted later, by 48 states. 

And states are free to do that, of course. They can also enter into other arrangements – like the Compact. Why? Because the Constitution gives states the freedom to change and evolve with the times.

And by the way, we’ve even changed how federal officials get into office before. Until 1913, U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures, not the people. The 17th Amendment changed that.

So, remind people that our democracy is always evolving. That’s the great thing about it! Those changes have led us to a time of universal suffrage where everyone’s voices are supposed to be heard equally. We have moved from, “All men are created equal,” to “all citizens are created equal.”

Unfortunately, that equality is not reflected under our current system using an Electoral College. A national popular vote is the next logical step in the evolution of American democracy.

That brings us to the question at the heart of this conference – what would be different if America used the popular vote to elect our president, and how would we count the votes?

We may not have all the answers yet, and I know there are different proposals on how the mechanics would work.

I’m not here to criticize or endorse any of those approaches. In fact, I’m here to encourage some of those lively debates and hopefully pull more people into the conversation.

Throughout my life, I’ve found that getting people from different viewpoints and backgrounds to the table is how we get our best policy decisions. As a Secretary of State, I’m right at the crossroads of the national popular vote conversation. I’m called on to support elections that count votes in a fair and impartial way.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact raises some important questions about the duties of my office. Right now, under Rhode Island law, I collect vote totals from all of our cities and towns and add them up. Then I certify the votes for presidential candidates and certify the electors from the winner’s party. I send that information to the Archivist of the United States in Washington, D.C., under federal law.

If the Compact becomes effective, I’ll still be responsible for certifying the votes in my state, of course. But each Secretary of State will also have to include the national count of all votes. That means I’ll have to send Rhode Island’s results to all the other member states, and they’ll have to do the same. 

That sounds simple. But what about non-member states?

 If they’re not bound by the Compact and don’t share their results with member states, how do we make the process work? It’s been proposed that we create a centralized place where non-members would deliver their votes in a timely manner. 

That means after I send my vote tally to the Archivist of the United States, I could then look at what every other Secretary of State has sent. I would add up all the votes for presidential nominees in every state. The one with the biggest number would be the national vote winner.

 I would then name as electors the slate from Rhode Island that’s from the party whose nominee won the national vote, even if that person didn’t win the plurality in Rhode Island. Under the Compact, I’m required to “treat as conclusive an official statement containing the number of popular votes in a state for each presidential slate made by the day established by federal law for making a state’s final determination conclusive.” 

This means that if a non-Compact state makes an “official statement” of its popular vote total, I’m required to accept that total as correct. I then have to count it when determining the national popular vote. 

But the Compact is not binding on non-member states. So, to make this process work without an approved federal mandate, we’re going to need a two-step process. Every Secretary of State will have to provide every other Secretary of State their “official statement” of vote totals in time to look at all the votes and add them up before we appoint the electors.

 The second problem is what to do about ranked choice voting. In other words, what about Maine? How would I determine what counts as a “vote” for president in Maine, where voters rank their preferences for president in order?

Maybe Maine should decide. That’s what the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact requires when it says that I as Secretary must “treat as conclusive an official statement containing the number of popular votes in a state.”

 These were some of the issues that came up at the annual meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State in New Mexico this past summer. They’re conversations I’m going to keep bringing up, because we need to be ready if and when the Compact becomes effective. That’s also why event like this are so important – to draw more voices from more backgrounds into that decision-making process.

In Rhode Island, we have a long history of thinking carefully about important issues. We were the first colony to declare independence and the last of the 13 states ratify the Constitution.

We thought carefully about the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. We think it’s best for all Americans, even if it means a popular Republican winning the national vote could win the electors from a deep blue state like Rhode Island by virtue of the Compact. 

The bottom line is that Rhode Islanders feel ignored under our current system. And many other states feel the same. If all votes counted equally in a presidential race – no matter where people live – candidates would campaign for every vote, everywhere. They would advertise in local media and open “Get Out the Vote” offices everywhere. That would all be a welcome change from the current system where almost all money to promote voting goes to just a few states.

Having more Americans feel like their vote matters would a big win for democracy, no matter who they vote for. Voting is woven into the fabric of our country.

I’m proud that Rhode Island has adopted the Compact, and I encourage other states to do the same. It’s clear that Americans want their voices heard with a national popular vote. Now let’s figure out how to make it happen.