By Popular Demand: A Donor's Long-Shot Effort to Overturn the Electoral College

  corund/shutterstock

 corund/shutterstock

The man who invented scratch-off lottery tickets is gambling some of his winnings on an effort to end the Electoral College, one state at a time.

John Koza believes state legislatures could subvert the Electoral College without actually abolishing it. If states pass laws pledging Electoral College votes to the candidate who wins the most votes nationally, in practice, it would mean presidents would be elected by popular vote. No constitutional amendment required.

To accomplish this, Koza founded two nonprofits, the Institute for Research on Presidential Elections, a 501(c)(3), and the National Popular Vote, a 501(c)(4) that allows him to use funds for lobbying. He estimates he’s put about $14 million of his own money toward the cause and plans to add another $2 million a year, according to a Politico profile.

The last reported total revenue for the National Popular Vote, started in 2007, was just less than $2.1 million. Its main purpose is “voter education,” according to the organization’s 2015 990 form. The Institute for Research on Presidential Elections reported total revenue of about $1.3 million in 2015, the year it was founded. It listed educational seminars, print materials and its website among its expenses.

Politico’s Tim Alberta lends some insight into what the educational activities of the nonprofits entail. Back in February, the Institute for Research on Presidential Elections flew Alberta and 11 other political journalists to Panama for an educational seminar. The seminar took the form of an all-expenses-paid, three-day trip at a four-star resort, interspersed with lectures on the weaknesses of the Electoral College system and the promise of Koza’s state compact idea. 

Sign me up.

Under Koza’s rubric, states enter into the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact by passing legislation pledging electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. The legislation pushed by Koza has a trigger clause in it, which ensures the law won’t take effect until there’s significant buy-in from other states. The trigger for the states using the Koza bill is 270 Electoral College votes.

The idea is controversial. Under Article II of the Constitution, states get to decide how to award their electoral votes, but the plan Koza’s pushing has not been addressed in court yet.

Koza is closer to that threshold than you might think. So far, 10 states and the District of Columbia have joined the compact, representing 165 Electoral College votes. That group does not include a single Republican-held or swing state.

In 2016, Koza donated about $325,000 to national and state Democratic candidates across the country, but the compact has enjoyed Republican support in the past. Tom Golisano, the founder of Paychex, a payroll services company, partnered with Koza at one point, contributing $10 million of his own money into the cause, but has backed away from the efforts recently, Politico reported.

For his part, Koza claims that his dislike of the Electoral College does not solely arise from the fact that the system handed elections to Republican candidates who lost the popular vote twice in the past 20 years. He points to inequities caused by a system that allows candidates to focus on a handful of states to tip the election.

That translates into more than just campaign visits and advertising, Koza argued in a Guardian editorial. It affects public policy, too.

“Battleground states receive 7 percent more presidentially controlled grants, twice as many disaster declarations, considerably more Superfund and No Child Left Behind exemptions, and benefit from many other major presidential policy decisions,” Koza said. This dynamic influences campaign promises, too, he said, pointing to both parties’ candidates’ 2016 trade policies, which catered to voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Koza’s motives may be pure and policy-based, rather than politically motivated. But to succeed, he’ll have to prove it to Republican lawmakers, who just saw their party's candidate end up in the White House after receiving about 2.9 million fewer votes than his opponent, or convince swing states to vote against their own interests.