Deseret News file
FILE - Voters in Herriman line up early at Unified Fire Authority Rosecrest fire station 123 on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — Could Utah's electoral votes have gone to Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump in 2016?

Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, said that's the one question he gets asked again and again about his proposal to add Utah to a list of states that have agreed to abide by the national popular vote in presidential elections.

The Democratic candidate lost to now-President Trump in Utah by more than 200,000 votes. But nationally, Clinton ended up nearly 3 million votes ahead of Trump, even though he won the Electoral College vote.

"My answer to that is we don't know," Peterson recently told the Legislature's Government Operations Interim Committee about how such an agreement might have affected the most recent presidential race.

Besides, he said, the race would have been very different had the candidates not been campaigning for the electoral vote, maybe even resulting in different nominees on the general election ballot.

Americans actually elect their president via a vote by the Electoral College. With just a couple of exceptions, all of a state's electoral votes — a number determined by the size of its congressional delegation — go to the winner of the popular vote there.

In Utah, which hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, Republican nominees typically count on winning the state's six electoral votes with minimal campaigning.

Mary Archbold
Popular vote

Peterson's proposed legislation, being drafted for the 2018 Legislature, would make Utah part of a compact of states pledged to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

That compact, currently made up of 11 states with a total of 165 electoral votes, would only take effect after enough states join to add up to the 270 electoral votes it takes to elect a president.

Peterson said making candidates focus on winning the national popular vote would make Utah more relevant in the race. He said the 2016 race, which saw Trump and a string of candidates make campaign stops in Utah during the primary, was a fluke.

Conservative lawmakers opposed to the compact expressed concerns about the possibility of disenfranchising voters by ignoring the decision they make in an election for what they said may be little if any benefit to the state.

Peterson said he understands that "it feels unsavory to say that our state (votes) for someone and yet our electoral votes go to somebody else, but what we're doing is a trade."

What Utah would get, he said, is "actual political engagement and attention and proximity" to candidates in exchange "for the prospect that if it doesn't go our way, our electoral votes go to somebody else. In my eyes, that tradeoff is worth it."

But House Budget Chairman Dean Sanpei, R-Provo, disagreed.

"I don't think that we'll get the outcome that we hope for," Sanpei said, suggesting that under the compact, presidential campaigns will shift to the most populated areas of the country.

"I think that's where campaigns will get the most bang for their buck," he said. "And Utah, once again, will become relatively irrelevant because we have a smaller population."

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said he fears the compact would nationalize how presidents are elected. The U.S. Constitution leaves it up to state legislatures to decide how electors are determined.

"We're taking that division of power, division of voice, and throwing it all into one because we want some kind of attention in a popularity contest," Ivory said. "We want people to spend money and pay attention to us during a presidential election."

Peterson called the Electoral College a "broken system" for electing a president.

The so-called battleground states where the electoral votes are up for grabs get all the attention from candidates, he said, and have led in the past to presidents running for re-election making decisions to benefit those states.

Peterson cited as an example President Martin Van Buren making "one of the most cynical political calculations" by failing to protect Mormon settlers in Missouri from an extermination order because 1840 was an election year.

In modern times, Peterson said former President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which he called the largest federal intrusion into state education programs in half a century, was aimed at placating voters in Ohio.

Ohio, Florida, Colorado and other battleground states, he said, are also more likely to receive natural disaster declarations, grants and waivers from the federal government.

Switching to a popular vote would force candidates to attempt to appeal to voters everywhere, Peterson said, rather than just a majority in key states while taking others for granted.

"What happens is, the margins become important," he said. Utah would get a lot of attention from GOP presidential candidates "because they would want to come and squeeze as many votes out of the state as possible to offset votes in other states."

The outcome of the 2016 election — with Trump winning 304 electoral votes to 227 for Clinton after narrow victories in several battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania — is spurring interest in the popular vote issue.

Trump had not been expected to win the White House. Even reliably Republican Utah gave him just 45.5 percent of the vote, the lowest margin of victory for the president in any state.

"I think the last election gave everybody pause for a lot of reasons," Peterson said. "Now that the dust has settled, they're ready to take a look at this, because this isn't just about one election."

Pat Rosenstiel, a senior consultant to National Popular Vote, a California-based organization that's been trying to bring states into the compact since 2005, said he's not sure how to gauge the impact of the Trump election.

"It was not a national popular vote election. The problem we're trying to fix is, in every presidential election, there are voters who matter with the American president and voters who don't," Rosenstiel said.

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He stopped short of predicting the popular vote system could be in place for the next presidential election in 2020. Even if Utah gets on board, more states with a total of at least 99 electoral votes would have to sign on for the compact to take effect.

But Rosenstiel said he believes most people "certainly think the current system is broken, when you consider the fact that 4 out of 5 American voters are trapped in flyover states" — including those in Utah.

"I can't think of any state that might benefit more," he said, because Utah "is a reliably Republican flyover state, and this is all about making every voter in every state politically relevant in every presidential election."