What is “National Popular Vote”?

2010/07/01
By

NPV is clever politics, bad policy

The Electoral College was one of the least controversial provisions of the original Constitution. The state-by-state way we elect the President of the United States gives each state a number of Electoral Votes equal to the sum of their U.S. Representatives and Senators (and Washington, D.C., gets three). Nearly all states award all of their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes in their state (Nebraska and Maine apportion some by congressional district). To win, a candidate must collect the majority of electoral votes (270 of 538), or else the election goes to the House of Representatives (which also has a majority requirement). The Electoral College makes presidential campaigns and elections primarily a state responsibility, part of the American constitutional system called federalism.

Electoral College Map

Federalism, and the Electoral College in particular, reflect the belief that stable institutions are essential for maintaining a political regime and preserving a free society. They are products of the understanding that freedom is never the result of simple legal or even constitutional commands. Freedom requires institutions that channel potentially dangerous political passions into constructive compromise and coalition building. The Electoral College system does this; the proposed “National Popular Vote” interstate compact does not.

National Popular Vote is a San Fransisco-based organization founded and funded by Dr. John Koza. It is also the name of Dr. Koza’s proposal to use state legislation to create an agreement among states that would change how the Electoral College works. In short, states would agree to ignore the result within their state and instead give all of their electoral votes to the candidate winning the most votes nationwide. There is no majority requirement or provision for a runoff. The agreement takes effect when passed by enough states to control an electoral vote majority, and therefore to control the presidential election.

While Dr. Koza’s proposal has been stymied now for over a year, it was previously enacted in five states: Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and Washington. Within the last month, it has made some progress in Delaware, Massachusetts, and New York. It is now dead for the year in Delaware, but it remains possible that either or both of the other two states could enact it.

National Popular Vote cleverly takes advantage of the Constitution’s grant of authority to state legislatures to determine how to allocate their electoral votes. For over a century, Electoral College opponents focused on amending the Constitution. National Popular Vote is a clever strategy and, at least on its surface, elegantly simple.

Yet the benefits of the current Electoral College system have nothing to do with surface appeal. In fact, the debate over National Popular Vote exposes just how little most Americans (and many law professors and even politicians) understand the incentives created by the Electoral College that moderate and strengthen our political system.

The Electoral College forces presidential campaign strategists and national political parties to construct broad coalitions across much of the nation. The phenomena of “swing states” makes this clear: the candidates and their parties are currently so evenly matched that recent elections have worked their way down to a small number of states. Thankfully, and in part because of the workings of the Electoral College, neither the safe states nor the swing states represent anything like particular geographic regions or political interests. The states that make up each group (“safe” and “swing”) have been continually shifting as the political parties strive to achieve the constitutional majority defined by the Electoral College.

The greatest historical example of the importance of the Electoral College is the election of 1888. National Popular Vote claims that Grover Cleveland’s loss was a great injustice, yet it was a turning point–for the better–in American politics. Read more in our earlier post: What Grover Learned at (the) Electoral College.

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15 Responses to What is “National Popular Vote”?

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by trentengland and SaveOurStates.org. SaveOurStates.org said: Check out Save Our States for the latest synopsis of the debate over National Popular Vote and for details on an… http://fb.me/DsZZKuXa [...]

  2. Preston Dunn on 2010/07/18 at 8:03 AM

    Trent,

    I agree with your stance on keeping the Electoral College as is and support your cause. However, with regard to specific issues (not Presidents), I feel we should begin to explore the idea of a Fast-Track I&R (Initiative & Referendum).

    All polling indicates an overwhelmingly majority of Americans embrace Christian values, yet this sentiment is not reflected in our laws in so many cases. This nations' character should reflect the collective will and mindset of the people…that is this nation! Folks are naturally frustrated with a representative system that is broken and cannot/will not enact legislation that is consistent with their moral and social beliefs. With around eighty percent of the people indicating Christian values, should we kill four thousand unborn children a day for convenience? Should blatant pornography thrive? Should militant homosexual activists be allowed to influence the minds of our children? Should activist judges be allowed to usurp the constitution? Our representative cannot even protect our nations' own borders!

    • HighlanderJuan on 2012/11/23 at 12:42 PM

      It can be successfully argued that we are not a nation. If we were a single nation, we would be known as the United State. The problems we are having today are reflected by the fact we don't provide for state control over the federal government.

  3. Preston Dunn on 2010/07/18 at 4:04 PM

    With these things in mind, it is easy to see how the crazy NPV sentiment could spill over to the populace. People are anxious and angered at the direction this country is, and has been, going! The people are tired of the constant bombardment of radically non-Christian ideas being given the status they should not enjoy in America.

    From: http://www.mediamud.org/CSA.html
    "America has long been a two-party system of government, afflicted with the inevitable ills such division brings about. Divided in ideology of means more than goals, each party has garnered the support of about half of the electorate. This has unfortunately left politicians scrambling for support from those on the ideological fringes. Bidding for the affections of the few, they routinely acquiesce to demands not consistent with the core beliefs of either party. Yes, in America, often the tail is wagging the dog!"

    There is a reason the majority of the people take a position on one or the other side of an issue – they're right!

    Thanks for your time and good luck,

    Preston Dunn

  4. [...] the November election was a setback for National Popular Vote, the San Fransisco-based lobbying organization out to manipulate the Electoral College in a way [...]

  5. james on 2011/03/11 at 3:03 PM

    it should be the will of those who vote and who ever gets the most should win not the foolishness of how it is

    • Trent on 2011/03/17 at 1:59 PM

      So you don\’t mind if the winner has a plurality drawn heavily from one region of the country? You place no value on political stability or moderation? Maybe you\’re just a big fan of the French Revolution, that turned out well, didn\’t it?

      The Electoral College allows the will of the people, filtered through the states using the exact same political calculus that is the basis for Congress, to decide who is President of the United States. By recognizing and using the states, the current Electoral College system helps to keep our politics more national and inclusive than it would be under a raw popular vote system.

      • HighlanderJuan on 2012/11/23 at 12:44 PM

        And this all depends on honest elections, which appear to be a thing of the past – if we ever had elections that were not corrupted.

  6. [...] week I visited Juneau to talk with state legislators about National Popular Vote. NPV’s anti-Electoral College legislation (SB 39) has moved through two of their Senate [...]

  7. [...] I have heard an amazing array of different–sometimes contradictory–claims made by National Popular Vote (NPV) advocates. Some of this is reasonable, since different NPV backers have different complaints about [...]

  8. [...] National Popular Vote interstate compact would wipe away state lines and turn the entire nation into one giant [...]

  9. [...] Following four failures in Rhode Island and two in New York, National Popular Vote may have sealed up a California victory with recent legislative approval of their interstate compact legislation. (For a description, see “What is ‘National Popular Vote’?“) [...]

  10. [...] the last two days, I’ve debated four National Popular Vote advocates in two cities and spoken about the issue as part of a panel presentation on federalism. [...]

  11. justin on 2011/12/17 at 5:52 PM

    Thanks for shedding light on this issue. When I thought of the electoral vote I often suspected this was putting the power of the many into the hands of a few. I can see how that is a dangerous take on the issue. Honestly I'm with the other people on this blog wondering how it is that a Christian nation seems to be so falsely represented. Why are we always bending to a little evil to get some good done?

  12. [...] (For the basics on what the National Popular Vote anti-Electoral College scheme is all about, check out this post.) [...]

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The genius of the United States of America: we are both United and States. The American system of states is Federalism. One part of it is the Electoral College, the state-by-state way we elect the President of the United States.

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