National Popular Vote’s lavish junkets for state legislators

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National Popular Vote’s lavish junkets for state legislators

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When News Channel 5 in Nashville, Tennessee hosted a debate between Save Our State’s Trent England and NPV’s Ray Haynes, there were few surprises for people involved on either side of this issue. One moment that jumped out at me, however, was an exchange about NPV’s lobbying. NPV advocates bristle when some of their lobbying tactics are exposed, in this case their practice of taking state legislators on all-expenses-paid trips to lavish resorts.

First, a bit of background on what NPV’s lobbyists are so touchy about. At these resorts, state legislators are given presentations to try to persuade them to support NPV. It isn’t all work of course, and there’s plenty of free time to hit the golf course or relax at the spa, or otherwise enjoy the five-star atmosphere.

The existence of these seminars is not in dispute, or at least shouldn’t be. Back in 2014, after the Republican-controlled Oklahoma State Senate passed NPV but before it was brought up in the House, an AP story revealed that several Oklahoma legislators had gone on trips to Las Vegas and Miami sponsored by an organization called FairVote, which is a leading proponent of NPV. The article itself isn’t available online anymore (at least not without a LexisNexis or similar account), but an Oklahoma blog post on the junkets is still up and included this from the AP article:

Several Oklahoma legislators accepted expenses-paid trips to Miami and Las Vegas from a group that wants to change the way the U.S. elects a president, but because the travel was sponsored by a nonprofit group, rather than traditional lobbyists, there's no requirement for the lawmakers to disclose the trips to the public.

FairVote, which wants states to allocate electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes nationally, extended invitations to legislators to attend seminars to learn more about the national popular vote proposal. Another one is set for next month in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The blog post refers to one state senator who sponsored NPV who “went on a FairVote trip to Las Vegas last fall.” Additional reporting around the same time confirms that several other state legislators attended this or other junkets.

Similar stories popped up in Michigan a few years back, and I know from talking with legislators in other states that the groups pushing NPV hold these seminars regularly. Here, for example, is a news report out of Michigan from 2018:

Michigan Republicans push ‘popular vote’ bills after trip to Hawaii

More than 20 Michigan Republican lawmakers traveled to Hawaii, Puerto Rico and other vacation spots in the past two years where, on one day, they attended a seminar sponsored by a California group pushing to change how Michigan awards its electoral votes for president.

Further down the article mentions that the sponsor of these trips was something called the Institute for Research on Presidential Elections.

So what happened during that Channel 5 debate? It started when Ray Haynes, attempting to demonstrate Republican support for NPV, touted the fact that the compact had passed the Republican-controlled Oklahoma State Senate in 2014 and the Arizona State House in 2016. Which is true, but as Trent explained, there perhaps should be an asterisk next to those two events. I’ve lightly edited his and Ray’s comments beginning at around the 25-minute mark and added a few clarifications in [brackets] (alas, people do not typically speak in grammatically correct sentences):

TRENT: [In Oklahoma] the National Popular Vote lobbyists took a bunch of our state legislators, all Republicans, on a trip to a very expensive resort, and nobody knew this was going on, none of their constituents knew this was going on… and when these guys came back from this very expensive resort after only hearing one side of the story they introduced the legislation, they passed it, and when constituents found out about it, the capitol was flooded with angry calls and letters, the House refused to do anything with it, and they haven’t been able to find a bill sponsor since then.

In the last five or six years, they can’t find anybody in Oklahoma willing to sponsor their legislation. It’s true it once passed in the Oklahoma State Senate, it once passed in the Arizona House, same thing in Arizona. …[I]t passed when they had heard only one side of the story…

RAY: Everything he said is absolutely out-the-door false. [Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs] that Trent works for now actively lobbied against [NPV]. I was the lobbyist for NPV in Oklahoma, we didn’t take them to an expensive resort, we didn’t do the things that he talked about, we didn’t do that in Arizona, because I was also the lobbyist in Arizona. I sat down, member by member, and persuaded them in the face of active opposition in Oklahoma in particular from Trent’s organization. For him to say that, I’m personally outraged.

Perhaps “out-the-door false” is a California expression meaning “almost entirely correct but perhaps missing a slight nuance,” but Ray’s claim that “we didn’t take them to an expensive resort” is demonstrably false, though there is a bit of nuance regarding just who the “we” in this case is.

What Ray may be trying to claim is that the organization that he represented as a lobbyist in Oklahoma, National Popular Vote, Inc., did not pay for state legislators to go on these trips. And he’s right! The trips for Oklahoma legislators referenced in the 2014 article were paid for by FairVote, and the more recently reported trips for Michigan legislators were sponsored by the Institute for Research on Presidential Elections (IRPE).

But these were not independent of what NPV lobbyists and consultants like Ray were doing, quite the opposite. FairVote was coordinating its events with Ray and other NPV lobbyists at the time, described in this 2014 article from the Oklahoma blog BatesLine:

Several Republican Oklahoma legislators have confirmed to BatesLine that they or their colleagues have been invited to all-expenses-paid "seminars" sponsored by National Popular Vote advocates and held in exotic, warm-weather locations. The legislators have mentioned locations including Scottsdale, Arizona, south Florida, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, and St. Croix in the U. S. Virgin Islands. State Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, has confirmed the latter destination in his latest blog entry, "Spiking the Electoral College with a Free Trip to St. Croix."

One legislator told me about receiving verbal information about the Scottsdale event from Michelle Sutton, a lobbyist at the state capitol who is registered as a representative of National Popular Vote... According to the legislator, the verbal info was followed by an invitation attached to an email from Saul Anuzis, a consultant to the National Popular Vote campaign.

So it’s clear that NPV’s lobbyists were inviting people to these events, and it seems a fair bet – though if this is incorrect, the folks at the NPV organization or FairVote should reach out to me and I’ll happily correct the record – that among the attendees and probably the speakers at these events were Ray and others connected with the NPV organization. Sure sounds like “we” to me.

As for the events sponsored by IRPE, Ray Haynes is listed on IRS forms as the organization’s president. Two other lobbyists and consultants for NPV are listed as the group’s chairman and vice-president, while the chairman of National Popular Vote, Inc. is the organization’s treasurer (those four plus one other person form the five-member board of directors of IRPE). It that’s not “we,” what is?

I should note that all of this appears to be legal, and I have no real problem with how the NPV lobbyists and consultants have set all this up (it has to do with what different types of tax-exempt organizations are allowed to do, and there are groups across the political spectrum who use similar structures).

As for the other issues that Ray is denying, the Oklahoma think tank certainly did swing into action after NPV passed the Senate, but did very little before that vote because (mea culpa) it didn’t think there was much of a threat of it passing in Oklahoma. But Trent did misspeak regarding the inability of NPV’s lobbyists to get anyone in Oklahoma to sponsor the bill – according to the NPV organization’s website, in 2015, a single state representative (a Republican) sponsored it. The bill went nowhere, and it wasn’t until 2021 that another representative (a Democrat) was willing to sponsor it. It’s also been quite some time since a Republican in Arizona has sponsored NPV.

The truth is that National Popular Vote, Inc. and the organization its consultants and lobbyists control, the Institute for Research on Presidential Elections, have a well-financed and sophisticated program that includes taking state legislators to very nice resorts and giving them their pitch (it’s not clear that FairVote is still doing these events). There’s nothing wrong with that (in my opinion at least). But it is curious that NPV’s lobbyists and consultants can’t seem to admit that these events are a basic part of their model and get very defensive when they are brought up.