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Conservatives are leery of Mr. Golisano’s bona fides — he gave $1 million to the 2008 Democratic National Convention and has donated to the Clinton Foundation — but he registered as a Republican in New York in 2005, and recently registered as a Republican in Florida after moving there to avoid New York’s high income taxes, said Pat Rosenstiel, National Popular Vote senior consultant.

“At the end of the day, this is a bipartisan effort, no matter what former chairman Steel says,” said Mr. Rosenstiel.

Among those now speaking out on the compact’s behalf are Saul Anuzis, who placed second in the 2011 RNC chairmanship vote, and Giovanni Cicione, a former Rhode Island Republican Party chairman. Mr. Cicione bristles at suggestions that he is backing the plan for a paycheck. He said he has paid only for his time and expenses and that “I’ve never met Tom Golisano and he’s never paid me anything.”

Mr. Cicione’s support stems from his frustration over presidential candidates from both parties who devote their time and energy to winning the dozen or so tossup states while states like Rhode Island, whose meager three electoral votes are dependably Democratic, are ignored.

“I’m doing this because I care about the state of Rhode Island and I believe this will help states like Rhode Island,” said Mr. Cicione. “Unless we do something radical and important like National Popular Vote, I don’t think we’re going to get back to the balance envisioned by the Founding Fathers.”

While critics agree his concern for such states is laudable, they fear the law of unintended consequences. They predict the compact will result in presidential races in which the focus shifts from the battleground states to regions with the largest concentrations of voters, namely big urban areas.

Tom Del Beccaro, chairman of the California Republican Party, said such a system favors Democrats because their voters are concentrated in big cities. A map on his website,, shows tall towers of blue urban voters surrounded by a vast flat sea of red voters.

Democrats “are for it because they get votes almost exclusively from major urban areas. The strategy is to eke out victories nationwide that way,” said Mr. Del Beccaro.

Such an approach is also rife for voter fraud, given the recent history of groups like ACORN manufacturing Democratic voters in urban centers, he said.

“Their constituencies are there, and it makes it easier for groups like ACORN to register voters by compliant and noncompliant means,” said Mr. Del Beccaro. “[Democrats] are also pushing for same-day voter registration. If you combine those things, there’s a huge opportunity for fraud.”

The compact’s supporters insist that the potential for abuse is no greater under the compact than it is under the current system, given the recent history of tight races in tossup states such as Ohio and Florida.

“Right now, you can steal 10 electoral votes with a very small number of votes,” said Mr. Rosenstiel.

Then there’s the constitutional question. Critics insist that such state compacts are banned by the Constitution, while supporters say the agreement is no different from multistate arrangements such as the PowerBall lottery.

What’s indisputable is that the debate over the National Popular Vote Compact is no longer merely academic. “It got under the radar at the start,” said Mr. Del Beccaro. “It is flying under the radar no more.”