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Democratic Assemblyman Nelson Araujo at the Nevada Legislature on Feb. 14, 2017. Photo by David Calvert.

A long-simmering movement to drop the Electoral College system, renewed by Donald Trump winning the presidency despite losing the popular vote, is resurfacing in Nevada despite concerns that a shift could kneecap the state’s status as a high-profile battleground for presidential candidates.

A group of Democrats led by Assemblyman Nelson Araujo and including Speaker Jason Frierson is again pushing for the state to adopt the National Popular Vote interstate compact, which would tie Nevada’s six electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of the statewide outcome.

Unanswered constitutional questions aside, debate over AB274 during a hearing on Tuesday revolved around one question — would a national popular vote system give more power to larger states and cities, and would that come at the expense of Nevada’s current status as a key battleground state?

Supporters of the measure including former Michigan Republican Party chairman Saul Anuzis have been lobbying lawmakers even before the start of the 120-day legislative session, and said that a state’s battleground status — including Nevada — was “cyclical, fleeting and inconsistent.”

He referenced his first-hand experience in Michigan, once the presidential campaign of John McCain decided to pull out of the state and leave Republican down-ballot candidates twisting in the wind.

“How could one day Michigan be a key battleground state and then be completely abandoned the next?” he said. “Unless you live in a battleground state, once you understand the system, your vote doesn’t really matter.”

Scott Drexel, a fellow representative for the group and Democratic fundraiser, noted that a shift of about 30,000 votes would have won Hillary Clinton the 2016 election, and another shift of about 214,000 votes would have elected Mitt Romney president in 2012 despite a national vote lead in the millions for President Barack Obama.

Anuzis said the bill would give voters outside the 12 or so major swing states a reason to show up to vote, and that it could improve turnout in languid, monochrome political environments such as Oklahoma.

“If you’re a Republican in a Democratic state, your vote matters, and if you’re a Democrat in a Republican state, your vote matters,” he said.

Eleven other states, ranging from larger states such as California and New York to smaller states such as Rhode Island and Hawaii, have adopted the compact for a total of 165 total electoral votes. The contract is structured to not take effect until states with more than 270 votes enter into the compact, and states would be able to back out of the compact several months ahead of an election.

Opposition to the measure questioned whether the supposed benefits of switching systems — higher voter turnout and more involvement outside of swing states — would do for Nevada, a political bellwether that’s correctly picked the president with two missed picks since 1912 and already receives an outsized amount of presidential attention for a sparsely populated state.

Erv Nelson, a former assemblyman and lobbyist for Hyperion Advisors, testified that in his personal opinion a move away from the current system would lead to a decline in state sovereignty and would mean smaller states receive less attention on a federal level.

“I’m afraid that if we go to a purely popular vote, states like Nevada will hardly get any circuit court judges or Supreme Court judges,” he said.

State legislators in the Assembly approved a similar measure in 2009 with Republicans largely opposed, but the measure died without a vote in the Senate.

The Nevada Republican Party’s central committee approved a resolution opposing the bill and the general concept of a national popular vote during a meeting over the weekend. Storey County Republican Party Chairman Jim Hindle noted that under a more nationally centered system, events like then-candidate Donald Trump hosting a fundraiser for the state party at Lake Tahoe would be much less likely to happen.

“If this goes through, we will not have the opportunity for interaction,” he said. “We ask you to keep Nevada relevant and keep the votes of Nevadan relevant.”

Both Hillary Clinton and Trump spent millions to air ads on Nevada television throughout the election, as did a bevy of outside groups and political action committees.

While opponents raised a number of questions about the constitutional standing of the measure, Legislative Counsel Bureau attorney Kevin Powers said that the lack of case law and lack of clarity in the document itself meant that it was “more likely than not constitutional.”

Powers said determining whether or not the agreement would need congressional approval to avoid violating the constitutional prohibition on interstate compacts made without federal oversight would likely need to be litigated and decided by a court.

Anuzis said that the group expected litigation to come as more states signed on to the compact, and said that the group, which has been operating since the mid-2000s, always expected any change to take time.

“It should scare you if everyone jumps in at once,” he said. “I think it’s coming along steadily.”

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