Although President Barack Obama won the popular vote in Colorado last month, it didn’t officially count until Monday when nine Democrats convened at the State Capitol to cast the final ballots for Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in the constitutionally mandated ritual of the Electoral College, a formal step toward filling the highest office in the land. It was the second time in four years that Colorado’s electors had voted for Obama and Biden.
Convening the meeting of the state’s nine presidential electors — one from each of the state’s congressional districts and two selected at-large, mirroring Colorado’s delegation to Congress — Gov. John Hickenlooper stressed the gravity of the ceremony, which took place in a West Foyer crowded with dozens of political types and journalists. The nation’s Founders, he said, “recognized the importance of having a system whereby the people’s will would be coalesced.”
The occasion was so important, Hickenlooper quipped, that the normally open-collared Democrat had even worn a necktie. “The fact that it’s Broncos colors is strictly coincidence,” he smiled.
“What we are witnessing here today is a very special part of Colorado history,” said Secretary of State Scott Gessler before instructing the electors to cast one vote for president and one vote for vice president.
When they were tallied, the Democrats had received nine votes apiece, as expected. Along with the results from Electoral College votes taking place at capitols across the country, they would be conveyed to Washington, D.C., where Congress is set to count them formally on Jan. 6.
Obama, who won Colorado’s popular vote by a margin of 5.4 percent, was expected to win 332 electoral votes nationally, compared to Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 206, far more than the 270 required to claim the White House.
Thomas Cronin, a political science professor at Colorado College, has called for the abolishment of the Electoral College — in part, because it discourages people from voting in states that aren’t up for grabs — but nonetheless said he was delighted to serve as an elector for Obama, representing the 5th Congressional District.
It was the second time former state Sen. Polly Baca, an at-large elector, had the chance to cast an electoral vote for Obama. Along with former state Sen. Terry Phillips, who represented the 2nd Congressional District, Baca was an elector in 2008 and was also picked by Democrats to carry out the duty again this year.
“Of course, 2008 was a unique year, it was truly historic,” she said after the ceremony had concluded. “But this also feels good. It’s really a wonderful opportunity and it’s an honor to serve as an elector.”
Elector Anthony Graves, who represented the 1st Congressional District, said he was “overcome with emotion and very thankful for this opportunity” after casting his votes.
“To participate in our democracy as a member of the Electoral College of the United States — if you look at the math, there are only 538 electors, 435 for the House, 100 for the Senate and three for the District of Columbia — so to be one of that privileged group to formally elect President Obama and Vice President Biden, today I’m a part of history,” he said.
The proceedings are far from an empty formality, Graves said.
“More than even participating in the election, I really hope that there are young people out there who see this activity and it inspires them to get involved, to have a voice in our democracy, to really participate in the civic process,” he said with an ear-to-ear smile.
“I have a nephew who’s a young guy, and I cannot wait to go home and give him the pen from the signing ceremony, to encourage him to think a little bit about his role as a citizen — it’s very special.”
The other electors — chosen by Democrats at the state and congressional conventions this spring — were Alvin Rivera, at-large; Gilbert Ortiz, Jr., from Congressional District 3; Debra Pilch from Congressional District 4; Laurence Steele from Congressional District 6; and Rick Swain from Congressional District 7.
During his remarks before the vote, Gessler observed that Colorado has often been a swing state and was most influential in the election of 1876, the year the state entered the Union and first cast electoral votes. Gessler described a deal struck between outgoing Republican President Ulysses S. Grant and a local millionaire who wanted statehood for the territory: “Colorado would become a state and, in exchange, its three presidential electors would be chosen by the newly formed state legislature rather than by popular vote.”
Following a loss in the national popular vote, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was declared the winner in the Electoral College over Democrat Samuel Tilden, and Colorado’s three votes proved decisive. The GOP-controlled legislature had come through, naming electors loyal to Hayes, who prevailed by a single electoral vote. (Historians contend that it was the Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction and led to the removal of federal troops from Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana, swinging those states’ votes to Hayes, that ultimately resolved the election.)
“That election was the first and the last time Colorado’s presidential electors were chosen by the legislature rather than by popular vote,” Gessler noted. Since then, the winner of Colorado’s popular vote has determined which slate of presidential electors gets to cast ballots.
Including Monday’s vote, Colorado has cast electoral votes for president 35 times, all but once for the Democratic or Republican nominee. In 1892, Populist candidate James B. Weaver won Colorado — and three other Western states — over Democrat Grover Cleveland, the national winner, and Republican Benjamin Harrison. Otherwise, Republicans have won Colorado’s electoral votes 22 times and Democrats have carried the state 12 times. Since Harry Truman was elected president in 1948 with Colorado’s six electoral votes, the state has gone with the national winner all but three times — voting for losing candidates Richard Nixon in 1960, Gerald Ford in 1976 and Bob Dole in 1996.