National Popular Vote Initiative Gaining Ground
By Nathaniel Rakich
The effort to bypass the Electoral College and choose the president via the national popular vote has historically seemed like a long shot. But after an impressive string of legislative victories this year, maybe it should be taken more seriously.
The National Popular Vote initiative aims to create an interstate compact to effectively “abolish” the Electoral College without amending the Constitution. States that join the compact agree to award their electoral votes not to the candidate who wins that state, but to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. (States can do this because there is no national law dictating how they should award their electoral votes; indeed, the Constitution explicitly leaves it to state legislatures to decide.) However, the compact will go into effect only when the states that have signed on are worth 270 electoral votes — enough to ensure that the popular vote winner wins the election.
In the 13 years since the initiative started, support for joining the compact has largely been limited to Democratic-leaning states, probably because the two times in recent history when the Electoral College winner lost the popular vote, the split benefited the Republican candidate. By the end of 2018, the compact had been joined by 12 jurisdictions (11 states and the District of Columbia) that were worth a combined 172 electoral votes. But all of them were safe Democratic jurisdictions, and supporters of the initiative had almost run out of blue states to sign up. There was little indication that they could conscript the purple or red states that the compact needs to take effect.
But then 2019 happened. The compact found three additional states willing to sign on, with three more seemingly on the cusp of doing so. And unlike previous years, the new and pending members include some hard-fought presidential swing states.
Already this year, Colorado (worth nine electoral votes), Delaware (three electoral votes) and New Mexico (five electoral votes) have joined the initiative, bringing it up to 15 signatories and 189 electoral votes. And three more have a good chance of signing on (which would bring the total to 18 signatories and 206 electoral votes):
- The state Senate in Oregon (seven electoral votes) gave its approval last month. The House seems likely to follow suit, considering that it passed similar legislation four times in the past decade, and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s office has indicated that she supports it.
- The state Senate in Maine (four electoral votes) passed the compact on May 14, sending it to the Democratic-controlled state House. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has not publicly taken a position on the legislation, however.
- In Nevada (six electoral votes), the compact has passed both chambers of the legislature and is awaiting Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s signature. However, he has not said whether he will sign it.
If even one of those states signs on to the compact, 2019 will be the year with the highest number of states to join the movement since it began in 2006. But which states are joining is just as significant as how many. Colorado and Nevada demonstrate that even hotly contested presidential swing states might be willing to join. And that Delaware and Oregon, two Democratic-leaning states,1 are signing on after years of inaction suggests that the pressure to pass the legislation is growing. For example, Oregon state Senate President Peter Courtney, who had blocked passage of a National Popular Vote bill in the state for years, relented this year.
But the compact has still only enlisted states where Democrats have had free rein to pass legislation. Democrats have full control of state government in all six states that either have passed or could realistically pass the compact this year. If the compact passes in Maine, Nevada and Oregon, every single state where the legislature and governorship are currently controlled by Democrats will have joined. And assuming that most Republican lawmakers continue to oppose the National Popular Vote movement, Democrats will have to sweep state elections in some tricky states in upcoming cycles for the compact to reach 270.
What states might those be?
Democrats control the governorship in Virginia, which is holding state legislative elections this fall. If they successfully flip the state Senate and House of Delegates, the compact could increase its electoral vote count by 13.
Then, in the 2020 elections, Democrats have a realistic shot at taking power in Minnesota (where they currently lack control of only the state Senate) and New Hampshire (the governorship), with Michigan and North Carolina as dark horses. That’s 45 more electoral votes. At that point, the compact would have amassed a total of 264 electoral votes, just shy of the 270 needed for the compact to (theoretically) go into effect. One snag here: It’s likely that some of the states that have passed the compact will lose some electoral votes after the 2020 census. Current estimates suggest that, under this scenario, reapportionment would leave the compact around 10 votes short heading into the 2022 elections.
So that year, supporters of the National Popular Vote campaign would need to capture just one more midsize state — in my view, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are the most plausible targets. The problem is that it’s unlikely that both the 2020 and 2022 elections will be good cycles for Democrats, so flipping all, or even most, of the states above is a tall order.
In the meantime, the compact could encounter other obstacles. Republicans could recapture full control of one (or more) of the states in the compact and repeal the National Popular Vote law. And if the compact began to look like it was really going to take effect, opponents would likely sue and claim that it is unconstitutional. So despite its successes in 2019, the National Popular Vote interstate compact remains a highly uncertain proposition in the long term.
Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.
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