For advocates pushing Oregon to join a list of states honoring the national popular vote in presidential elections, it appears the eighth time will be the charm.
A dozen years after a proposal to join the National Popular Vote Compact first died in the Legislature, the concept appears poised to pass this year.
The reason: The powerful figure who cut down past efforts has changed his approach. Senate President Peter Courtney’s office says he’ll allow a vote on the concept on the floor of the Senate.
“There are the votes, so the bill’s going to the floor,” Courtney said Friday, according to a spokeswoman.
That's a shift for the 75-year-old lawmaker that all but assures a popular-vote bill will pass in 2019. In 2009, 2013, 2015, and 2017 a bill that would have added Oregon to the popular-vote compact passed the House of Representatives only to be held up by Courtney once it reached the Senate. It died without passing out of either chamber in 2007 and 2011.
Courtney has long said only voters should be able to decide whether Oregon becomes a popular-vote state. A proposal in 2018 to put the question on the ballot had Courtney's support, but wound up dying amid opposition from the California-based group that is a central champion of the concept.
The group, National Popular Vote, argued it's more appropriate under the U.S. Constitution for lawmakers to decide how a state's electoral votes are apportioned.
This year, three bills have been introduced to enact the popular vote concept in Oregon. Senate Bill 870 has the most sponsors, including 13 state senators. It needs 16 votes to pass out of the Senate.
State Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, one of the bill’s chief sponsors, said he expects this is the year Oregon passes the bill. He said a hearing will be scheduled on his bill next week.
“I can safely say a majority of us now believe that” the bill should pass, Dembrow said Monday.
House Speaker Tina Kotek has supported the concept in the past and continues to do so, her office said.
The popular-vote concept would sidestep the electoral college system, in which a state’s electoral votes are given to whichever candidate wins the contest in that state. Proponents of a change say that system leads campaigns to focus on a small number of battleground states. They also point out that the system can lead to the election of presidents who do not win the popular vote, such as President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.
Under the National Popular Vote Compact, states jointly agree to apportion their electoral votes to the candidate for president who wins the most votes nationally. The compact takes effect once enough states sign on to reach at least the combined 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency.
To date, 13 states and Washington, D.C., have signed on, totaling 181 electoral votes. Oregon, the only state on the West Coast that hasn’t joined the compact, would add seven.
A repeal effort is underway in Colorado, where lawmakers recently adopted the popular-vote concept.
Courtney declined a request for an interview Monday, but his office suggested that his stance on the issue hasn’t changed — he still plans to vote against the bill on the Senate floor.
“He believes it’s time for the Senate to vote,” spokeswoman Carol McAlice Currie said.
But Courtney’s willingness to schedule a vote at all is new, and it comes amid a number of notable undercurrents.
First, the National Popular Vote group spent heavily on seeing Courtney defeated in his 2018 re-election bid, reasoning it needed a new Senate leader if its proposal had a chance of passing.
The group poured more than $100,000 into a barrage of negative advertising, and funded Republican challenger Greg Warnock. Courtney, the longest-serving Senate president in the state’s history, won re-election handily.
Eileen Reavey, a consultant who's lobbied for the bill, says National Popular Vote's persistence has been more powerful than that negative attention.
"I think it’s consistent lobbying," Reavey said. "We’ve been working with Democratic legislators on this bill for over a decade at this point."
Courtney also now leads a group of Senate Democrats who have been more restive than in years past, pushing for the body to pass more progressive legislation. Freshman senators like Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, and Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, have taken issue with the Senate president’s stance of not calling up bills for a vote if it’s not clear they have the support to pass.
Courtney’s leadership has been tested by a sexual harassment scandal in the Capitol, in which he’s been accused of downplaying and minimizing reports of misconduct, claims that he has denied.
Courtney also suggested last year that he’d be willing to allow a floor vote on the concept during this year’s session, while making clear he’d still oppose it, according to Dembrow.
“That’s how the system should work, unless there’s some overwhelming reason he knows about that we shouldn’t be voting on it,” Dembrow said.
He added: “It’s kind of crazy this has been going on for so long. We have other important business to do.”