As the United States enters a new presidential campaign season, discussions about the Electoral College are bound to resurface. The Constitution mandates that the outcome of presidential elections be determined by the College, a body of specially chosen electors, rather than by the national popular vote. Though the mode of choosing electors is left to the states, all but two states award all of their electors to the winner of the statewide popular vote. Each state is allotted electors based on its number of representatives and senators, and the District of Columbia is allotted three votes, bringing the total number of electors to 538.
Though the Electoral College has been controversial since its inception, it draws particular ire when the delegate totals contradict the nationwide popular vote, which occurred in both 2000 and 2016. Though Al Gore won the nationwide popular vote in 2000 by 500,000 votes, and Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by three million votes, the Electoral College totals handed victories to George W. Bush and Donald Trump instead. In response to these controversies, scholars like Northwestern University law professor Robert W. Bennet devised what is now known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC).
The NPVIC is a voluntary commitment in which participating states pledge their electors to the winner of the nationwide popular vote, regardless of the distribution of the vote within that state. Once the vote total of its members surpasses 270 votes (the threshold required to win the presidency), the compact will go into effect in all of the states that have passed legislation on the issue. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have already signed on, bringing the total to an impressive 196 electoral votes. The NPVIC is pending approval in 26 additional states, and the measure has passed one legislative chamber in eight of those states.
Although the 270-vote benchmark appears within reach, celebration would be premature. So far, the NPVIC has only been backed by traditionally blue states, primarily in the northeast. For this reason, the NPVIC risks being cast as a partisan power grab, rather than a proposal to make the US more democratic.
Though some have argued that the Electoral College does not inherently privilege one party over the other, a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin found that the Electoral College system heavily favors Republicans. According to the study, if a Democrat and Republican found themselves in a popular vote tie, the Republican would have a 65 percent chance of winning the presidency. Voters appear to recognize this fact, as their attitudes toward the Electoral College are colored by their party affiliation; 72 percent of Democrats support moving to as nationwide popular vote, while just 30 percent of Republicans agree. So even though typically red states such as North Carolina, Arkansas, and Oklahoma have passed the provision in one legislative chamber, it still seems unlikely that it will become law. Until a critical number of traditionally red states sign on, the NPVIC will be seen as yet another symptom of the nation’s crippling political polarization.
Another daunting challenge for the NPVIC is the boost that the Electoral College provides to less populous states. Small states tend to receive significant media attention due to their disproportionate weight under the Electoral College system. Even some Democrats, like Steve Sisolak, Democratic governor of Nevada, oppose the NPVIC for this reason alone. Sisolak vetoed a law that would have added his state to the compact, saying, “Once effective, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact could diminish the role of smaller states like Nevada in national electoral contests.” Blue-leaning states like Nevada have no incentive to give up their “swing state” status; as presidential candidates attempt to woo voters in these states, they often highlight state-specific issues for a national audience, and increased media presence gives local economies a boost. Given all of these factors—and despite its democratic goals—the NPVIC seems to have a long way to go before supporters can convincingly promote it as a movement that benefits all Americans.