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Explainer

The National Popular Vote, Explained

The Electoral College is one of the most undemocratic features of U.S. elections.

Last Updated: December 8, 2020
Published: March 14, 2019

In 2019, Color­ado, New Mexico, Delaware and Oregon became the latest states to take a stand against the Elect­oral College and join the National Popu­lar Vote Inter­state Compact (NPV). The NPV is a multi-state agree­ment that, when active, would ensure that the pres­id­en­tial candid­ate who wins the popu­lar vote nation­ally also wins in the Elect­oral College.

The states’ approval of the compact is a victory for demo­cracy and the prin­ciple of “one person, one vote.”

However, this does not mean that these states will award their collect­ive 24 elect­oral votes to the biggest national vote-getter in 2020. There’s still more work to be done before we can wave good­bye to the current func­tion of the Elect­oral College — one of the most funda­ment­ally undemo­cratic parts of U.S. elec­tions.

Here’s what you need to know about National Popu­lar Vote and the Elect­oral College:

How does NPV work?

In the current Elect­oral College system, the pres­id­ency is awar­ded to the candid­ate who wins at least 270 of the 538 avail­able elect­oral votes. The Consti­tu­tion gives state legis­latures the right to choose how pres­id­en­tial elect­ors are chosen. Since the 19th century, each state (with the excep­tions of Maine and Nebraska) has awar­ded its elect­oral votes to the winner of the popu­lar vote in that state. But under the NPV system, states would commit to award their elect­oral votes to the winner of the national popu­lar vote instead.

The Compact will go into effect only when states controlling at least 270 elect­oral votes have joined. In the elec­tion after that threshold is reached, the NPV states would ensure that the winner of the national popu­lar vote becomes pres­id­ent. While the compact would not abol­ish the Elect­oral College, it would guar­an­tee that the winner of the Elect­oral College vote and popu­lar vote are the same.

The campaign to pass the compact began in 2006, earn­ing its first victory in Mary­land the follow­ing year. Since then, 15 states (Mary­land, New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, Wash­ing­ton, Massachu­setts, Vermont, Cali­for­nia, Rhode Island, New York, Connecti­cut, Color­ado, New Mexico, Delaware, Oregon) and Wash­ing­ton, DC, have signed on. The addi­tion of these four new states brings the number of pledged elect­oral votes to 196, 72 percent of the needed total.

Why not stick with the Elect­oral College?

The Elect­oral College is one of the most unique — and undemo­cratic — elements of the U.S. govern­ment. It was origin­ally included in the Consti­tu­tion as a means to thwart direct demo­cracy. Many of the framers of the Consti­tu­tion were uncom­fort­able with giving power to the people, and in part devised the Elect­oral College as a demo­cratic bypass. The Elect­oral College was also designed to protect the influ­ence of slave states. Under a provi­sion that coun­ted slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of repres­ent­a­tion in Congress, South­ern slave states gained outsize influ­ence in select­ing the pres­id­ent. The system has endured despite the expan­sion of suffrage and the abol­i­tion of slavery.

But the prob­lems with the Elect­oral College extend beyond its histor­ical roots. Basing the elector count off of congres­sional deleg­a­tions contin­ues to give dispro­por­tion­ate voting power to people in smal­ler states. For example, Wyom­ing voters have nearly four times as much influ­ence as Cali­for­nia voters do.

Addi­tion­ally, under the Elect­oral College system, elect­oral outcomes can under­mine the popu­lar vote. Because 48 states and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. award their votes on a winner-take-all basis,* it is tech­nic­ally possible for a candid­ate to win the pres­id­ency with around 23 percent of the national popu­lar vote. While that’s unlikely to ever happen, the system can and does fail. In the 1991 book Wrong Winner: The Coming Debacle in the Elect­oral College, two polit­ical scient­ists predicted that the Elect­oral College would select the “wrong winner” within twenty years. As we have seen, their fore­cast turned out to be correct — twice since 2000.

The best perman­ent solu­tion is to amend the Consti­tu­tion to abol­ish the Elect­oral College. But the system remains intact despite numer­ous attempts to abol­ish it in the last two centur­ies — more than 700, accord­ing to the Congres­sional Research Service.

When has the Elect­oral College picked the “wrong winner”?

The candid­ates who won the popu­lar vote have lost in the Elect­oral College in two out of the last six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. In the 2000 elec­tion, just 537 votes in Flor­ida (and a 5–4 Supreme Court decision that preven­ted a recount) kept Al Gore from the White House, even though he received over half a million more total votes nation­ally than George W. Bush. And in 2016, Donald Trump won the Elect­oral College by a larger margin than Bush despite receiv­ing 2.9 million fewer votes than Hillary Clin­ton.

This “wrong winner” scen­ario has happened three addi­tional times in U.S. history.

Back in 1824, John Quincy Adams lost the popu­lar vote and the elect­oral college to Andrew Jack­son. But no candid­ate received a major­ity of the Elect­oral College votes, so the race was decided in the House of Repres­ent­at­ives. In the infam­ous “corrupt bargain,” Speaker of the House Henry Clay delivered Adams the pres­id­ency in exchange for his appoint­ment as Adams’ Secret­ary of State.

In 1876, Demo­cratic candid­ate Samuel J. Tilden won the popu­lar vote, but 20 of the elect­oral votes were contested. Elec­tion Day had been tain­ted with viol­ence and fraud, and in several states, both parties declared that their candid­ates had prevailed. In the Comprom­ise of 1877, the disputed elect­oral votes were awar­ded to Repub­lican candid­ate Ruther­ford B. Hayes in exchange for the removal of North­ern troops from the South and the end of Recon­struc­tion. And in 1888, incum­bent Pres­id­ent Grover Clev­e­land won the popu­lar vote against Benjamin Harrison but lost two states by less than 1 percent — and consequently, the Elect­oral College.

We will likely see more fail­ures of the Elect­oral College system in the future. Accord­ing to Sam Wang, a neur­os­cient­ist and elec­tion expert at Prin­ceton, “in elec­tions where the popu­lar vote margin [is less than] 3%,” it’s prob­able that “the Pres­id­ency goes to the popu­lar-vote loser about 1 in 3 times.” With the rise of partisan polar­iz­a­tion across the coun­try and margins under 3 percent in three out of the last six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, it’s highly prob­able that the system will thwart the will of the major­ity of the nation’s voters again.

How does the Elect­oral College disen­fran­chise voters?

The Elect­oral College system effect­ively margin­al­izes the tens of millions of voters living in solidly red and blue states. In a winner-take-all system, any votes over the 50 percent margin are considered “wasted votes.” This means that voters in states with a heavy partisan lean have a lower chance of actu­ally impact­ing the elec­tion. Public aware­ness of this fact also poten­tially lowers voter turnout.

Some claim that the Elect­oral College ampli­fies the voices of voters in small states — but it’s actu­ally only a hand­ful of battle­ground or swing states that receive most of the atten­tion. During the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race, two-thirds (273 of 399) of the general-elec­tion campaign events took place in just 6 states (Flor­ida, North Caro­lina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan), accord­ing to National Popu­lar Vote, an organ­iz­a­tion that advoc­ates for the compact. Small states were largely ignored — as were the popu­lous states of New York, Texas, and Cali­for­nia, which were viewed as reli­ably red or blue. The 2020 general elec­tion saw a similar trend, despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on phys­ical campaign events.

With the NPV, every vote would have equal weight, giving campaigns the incent­ive to engage with voters in every state.

What’s next for NPV?

The addi­tion of four states in a single year was a big win for the NPV. Addi­tion­ally, when Color­ado voters took NPV to the ballot in 2020, they confirmed the popu­lar support for the meas­ure. But it also suffered some legis­lat­ive defeats during the 2019–2020 session. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak unex­pec­tedly vetoed the NPV bill after the state’s legis­lature adop­ted it. Like­wise, the Virginia Senate post­poned its consid­er­a­tion of the NPV legis­la­tion follow­ing its passage in the state’s House of Deleg­ates.

NPV advoc­ates believe that those last 74 elect­oral votes are now within reach and hope to secure a national popu­lar vote for the 2024 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Gauging from the recent momentum, lawmakers across the coun­try have come to see that it might finally be possible to reform the outmoded, undemo­cratic Elect­oral College.

*Nebraska and Maine split their elect­oral votes between the statewide winner and the winner in each Congres­sional District

(Image: Hero Images/Getty)