The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact: using the Electoral College against itself

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact: using the Electoral College against itself

With memories of 2016, the relationship between the Electoral College and the Popular vote is once again set to be thrust into the limelight. With fears of another victory by a president who doesn’t have the popular vote, politicians have begun to seek a way around the system.

On 3 November, all eyes will be on the United States for the country’s presidential elections. According to several polls, Democratic hopeful Joe Biden currently leads the presidential race by double digits, but this does not mean that the race is a shoe-in for the former vice-president. Hillary Clinton had a similar lead in the polls when she was running for president back in 2016. But despite winning the Popular vote, she lost the Electoral College and thus the presidential race to Donald Trump. The latter point is one of frustration for many Americans and specifically the Democrats who also lost the presidential elections of 2000 despite then-nominee Al Gore winning the Popular vote. A popular win for Joe Biden but a continuation of Trump’s presidency for another four years could spark fresh debates about abolishing the Electoral College. 

Behind the scenes, however, there are strategies at play to ensure the  popular winner takes the presidency without adding a constitutional amendment that would end the Electoral College. This plan is called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. To understand what this Compact does, it is important, first, to understand how American citizens choose their president. 

How do the United States choose their next president?

In the United States, the fifty states and the District of Columbia pick the president rather than the citizens themselves. How the states decide who and how to pick is mediated through the Electoral College. Each state receives  x amount of Electoral votes proportional to the size of their population. In addition, each state gets two more such votes regardless of population size. States can allocate these votes to whichever candidate they choose, but they generally tend to align their votes according to how the population within their state voted. The electors award the Electoral votes by allocating all the votes to the winner of the state (a winner-takes-all method) or by casting their votes semi-proportionally according to their citizens’ preference with both candidates receiving a sum of votes. In theory, however, states could allocate however they like and as such could cast their votes to the candidate who received a minority of the votes in their respective state. 

Why is the Electoral College a point of contention? 

Critics of  the Electoral College argue that giving each state two extra votes translates to citizens from smaller states having disproportionally more voting power than citizens from more populated states. De facto this means that one person does not equal one vote and citizens in small-sized states such as New Hampshire can have more impact than citizens in larger states like California. In the same vein, the Electoral College grants white voters more voting power compared to Black and Hispanic voters (16% and 28% more voting power respectively), because white people are the largest demographic in states with more voting power such as New Hampshire or Colorado.

Proponents of the Electoral College, on the other hand, claim that it works precisely as it was intended. They argue that this system was invented to support federalism and avoid the tyranny of the majority. Similarly, they feel that abolishing the Electoral College  would give densely populated cities like New York and Los Angeles much more power than sparsely populated rural states like Nebraska. For example, in August 2019, GOP representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas tweeted in favor of the Electoral College stating that:

The situation right now is as follows: The US has a population of roughly 328.2 million people and cumulatively its 50 states can hand out 538 Electoral votes. If the votes were distributed proportionally, one Electoral vote would comprise the wishes of 607,000 people. However, in the current situation, explained by each state getting two extra votes on the basis of being a state, a small-sized state such as Wyoming has 1 Electoral vote per 193,000 people whereas a large state such as Texas has one Electoral vote per 700,000 people. Compounded by  a winner-takes-all system in most states where votes of the losing candidate are disregarded in their entirety, it becomes clear how a president can be elected even when he does not win the popular vote. 

How to bring about change

Some politicians want to change this reality, however. One way to achieve this is through a constitutional amendment. To successfully amend the constitution, the proposition needs to pass with a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This seems unlikely to happen though, as the United States is experiencing extreme political polarisation between Democrats and Republicans.  Republicans are invested in maintaining the status quo, and the Democrats do not have a two-thirds majority in either chamber.

As an alternative solution, some states have conjured up and signed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC). This bill focuses on the clause that states can cast their votes to whomever they want rather than just the winner of the state’s election. Members of this Compact have agreed to allocate their Electoral College votes to the winner of the Popular vote nationwide. This effectively negates the Electoral College’s ability to appoint a President that only a minority of people voted for. Thanks to the NPVIC, a majority of the Electoral College votes automatically go to the candidate who wins the Popular vote.

How is it that the NPVIC hasn’t been put to practice then? Evidently, when a state allocates its votes to the winner of the Popular vote whilst the majority of its population votes for a different candidate there are serious political ramifications for the state’s leadership. Hence, the NPVIC will only go into effect when a majority of the Electoral College votes vote to uphold it; they will vote as a block for the candidate who wins the majority of the Popular vote. 

The current situation

According to the National Popular Vote Inc., 16 legal jurisdictions comprising 4 small-sized states (Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont), 8 medium-sized states (Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington) and 3 large states (California, Illinois, and New York), and the District of Columbia have passed a bill to uphold the NPVIC. Together these states have 196 out of the 538 possible Electoral votes. Consequently, a mix of states possessing a minimum of 74 Electoral votes need to pass a bill upholding the NPVIC for it to go into effect. 

In 2020, therefore, the elections will run as they normally do and the NPVIC will  not be put into practice. In the meantime, states with a stake in the NPVIC continue to recruit other states to join the cause to obtain this required controlling majority. Once this majority is reached the states who signed onto the NPVIC will vote in favour of the candidate who won the majority of the citizens’ vote nationwide.

So far, it remains uncertain if and when the NPVIC can be put into practice. With many states currently being controlled by Republican representatives it seems unlikely that the NPVIC will get its votes in the short run. Nevertheless, the probable option that Trump snatches the elections away from the Democrats by winning the Electoral College might accelerate a blue wave in the upcoming midterm elections. Taking over the senate and keeping the house of Representatives might give Democrats the momentum to turn the tide and to implement the idea of a Presidency elected by the Popular vote.

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