Blue States Are Banding Together to Sidestep the Electoral College

National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, map
National Popular Vote Compact map as of April 2019. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from ChrisnHouston / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

The 2016 presidential campaign was historically unprecedented in a number of ways, not the least of which was that the losing candidate got nearly three million more popular votes than the winner.

Ever since November 2016, national Democrats have been scrutinizing ways to take full advantage of Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory and make it work for them in 2020.

And at the state level, Democrats have started a serious push to shift how Americans elect presidents in the future, by having the national popular vote play a more decisive role than the electoral college.

Whether their efforts are picking up steam, or doomed to failure, is a matter of opinion — mostly partisan opinion at this stage. But there’s no question this effort has moved well beyond the hypothetical stage. More than a dozen state legislatures have already made a commitment in this direction. Their vehicle: the National Popular Vote Compact.

2016’s Mixed Political Message

In November 2016, Republican Donald Trump won the election by carrying 30 states, with a total of 304 electoral votes. Clinton, the Democratic nominee, carried 20 states and the District of Columbia, with 227 electoral votes.

But the popular vote went in the other direction, with Clinton winning 2.8 million more votes than Trump, and taking 48 percent of the vote to his 46 percent.

It was the second time in the past 16 years that the Democrats have carried the popular vote but lost the Electoral College (Democrat Al Gore in 2000 won 500,000 more popular votes than Republican George W. Bush).

Changing the US Constitution to mandate that presidents be elected by popular vote seems unlikely to gain any support from Republicans in Congress or in GOP-controlled state legislatures.

Therefore, Democratic-controlled legislatures across the country are looking to the National Popular Vote Compact. So far, 14 states and the District of Columbia have signed on, making a pledge to award their state’s Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes nationwide.

The concept behind it is simple: by joining the compact, states agree to award their electoral votes to the popular vote winner, regardless of party.

So with 14 states onboard, is the compact moving full steam ahead?  

Bipartisan Plan — Or One to Benefit Democrats Only?

The idea of the compact didn’t start after the 2016 election. It actually dates back to at least 2001, when Robert Bennett, a law professor at Northwestern University, suggested, in an academic publication, that a majority of the Electoral College could pledge to uphold the winner of the national popular vote.

Law professors Akhil Reed Amar and Vikram D. Amar later wrote that the idea would be constitutional if a group of states formed a compact agreeing to hand all their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner.

But there’s no question the idea picked up steam after the 2016 race.

For the compact to go into effect, the states within it would need to collectively total a majority of votes in the Electoral College, or 270. So far, states with 189 Electoral College votes have joined the compact.

That’s 70 percent of the total needed to go into effect, and just 81 votes shy of the magic number.

So far, though, the 14 states that have ratified the compact were all carried by Hillary Clinton. The compact is pending in another five states that Clinton carried. Not a single state that voted for Trump has adopted it.

2016 presidential election results map

2016 presidential election results map. Red: states won by Trump/Pence. Blue: states won by Clinton/Kaine. Numbers indicate electoral votes allotted to the winner of each state. Faithless electors: Colin Powell 3 (WA), John Kasich 1 (TX), Ron Paul 1 (TX), Bernie Sanders 1 (HI), Faith Spotted Eagle 1 (WA). Photo credit: Gage / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Still, the compact is pending in eight states that did vote for Trump — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, and South Carolina. All eight states have legislatures controlled by Republicans, so the compact’s future in each of those states is a question mark at best.

That hasn’t stopped a vigorous debate about whether or not the popular vote should have a greater significance in the election of our nation’s presidents — and exactly which states or populations would be hurt if it did (or, for that matter, if the status quo remained in place).

It’s already become an issue in the 2020 race. Numerous Democratic presidential candidates have been vocal in their support for ditching the Electoral College in favor of a national popular vote. During a town hall event in Jackson, MS, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) promised to abolish the Electoral College entirely, saying, “Every vote matters, and the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting, and that means get rid of the Electoral College.”

Likewise, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) wrote: “The Electoral College has distorted the outcome of elections and disenfranchised millions of voters, and I think that’s wrong. I believe that it’s time to get rid of the Electoral College, and I am ready to fight in Congress and around the country to pass [a] Constitutional Amendment to do that.”

But not all Democrats have been as quick to get on board. Some presidential nominees question the effort — not whether using the popular vote is a good or bad idea, but whether it’s realistic and practical. Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland said he doesn’t think it is, adding, “If I was starting from scratch, yes, but trying to abolish the Electoral College now is impractical.”

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) took a similar view, saying, “While many of us are frustrated with the way the Electoral College works … there is no possibility of abolishing it in the near term.”

Still, state lawmakers who have voted to join the compact, or are now considering it, are more optimistic. And they’re making the argument that it’s actually a creative way of empowering voters across the country,  including those that live in a state that isn’t viewed as competitive.

The Oregon Senate just voted to join the compact (although the measure still needs to be approved by the Oregon House), and one of the supporters, state Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland), said he favored it because it would help put all 50 states in play.

“What it means is that it doesn’t matter where I live,” Dembrow told the Oregonian. “I have as much of a chance of influencing the election as someone in any state in the country. This is what one person, one vote is all about.”

And the measure did pick up the support of two Republicans: Sen. Brian Boquist of Dallas, Oregon, and Sen. Chuck Thomsen of Hood River.

Most Republicans, though, have taken an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the compact, saying it makes no sense to change a system that’s been around for 200 years.

A measure to put the issue on the ballot in Ohio died when supporters withdrew the plan from the Ohio secretary of state’s office, and Republicans, including Gov. Mike DeWine (R), called it hopelessly partisan.

Revisiting 2016 Under the National Popular Vote Compact

If this new system had been in place in 2016, how would it have impacted the presidential race?

Let’s start with the premise that the compact contained states with a combined total of 270 electoral votes pledging to support the national popular vote winner, regardless of which candidate their own state voted for. If Hillary Clinton had carried the national popular vote, she would have secured the Electoral College votes of those states — even the ones she lost. At that point, Clinton would have been elected president based on her national popular vote majority. Because the states participating in the compact would award all of their 270 electoral votes to her. And that’s what makes Republicans nervous.

Donald Trump wins, Times Square

Election night, Times Square, November 9, 2016. Photo credit: © Joana Toro/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire

Critics of the plan say this is nothing more than an attempt to weaken Trump’s reelection bid, by creating a loophole that makes it easier for Democrats to win without a traditional electoral vote majority.

But not all GOP leaders agree. Saul Anuzis, former Republican Party leader in Michigan and former member of the Republican National Committee, has become an advisor to the National Popular Vote movement. In a column in The Hill, Anuzis disputed the notion that the Electoral College protects the interests of small states by preventing larger ones like California and New York to dominate the popular vote. The truth, he added, is that small red states like Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota, and small blue states like Vermont, Delaware, and Hawaii, get virtually no attention during presidential campaigns because they’re not considered competitive.

Instead, the shrinking number of “battleground states” like Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina get most of the attention, he said.

“Small-state interests routinely get ignored under the current system, in favor of the parochial interests of a few battleground states,” he wrote. “It is obvious that a lack of small-state influence is a shortcoming of the system. National Popular Vote, when it takes effect, will ensure that a voter in Bismarck, North Dakota, for example, is as relevant as a voter in Boca Raton, Florida.”

He also disputed the notion that Republicans couldn’t win the national popular vote, making this new system one that would solidly favor Democrats in the future.

“As for Republicans not being able to win a national popular vote election, as a former state party GOP chairman who twice ran for national chairman, I believe in the power of our ideas,” he wrote. “Under this new system, the candidate with the best ideas — ideas that resonate with the most American voters — will be elected president of the United States.”

Since 1992, Democrats have won the popular vote every year except 2004 (when President Bush won a slim 50.7 percent popular vote majority), so the compact would naturally benefit them.

Not surprisingly, a growing number of Republicans in Washington seem to be skeptical that Trump — or any other GOP nominee, should the president decide not to seek reelection — can win the popular vote next year. Their concern is that some of the largest states — including California, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey — are so solidly Democratic that a lopsided blue vote in those states wipes out GOP vote totals in smaller, rural red states. Some are writing off the popular vote altogether.

David Carney, a GOP New Hampshire strategist, told the Washington Examiner, “California, Illinois, and New York make it very, very difficult for anybody on our side to ever again to win the popular vote.” He said Republicans have a lot more confidence in Trump’s ability to again carry a majority in the Electoral College, saying “Two hundred seventy — that’s what people remember.”

Ironically, if Trump were to win a second term by gaining a majority only in the Electoral College, in would be a historic first: a two-time winner who would have failed both times to carry the popular vote.

But is it necessary for Democrats to enact the compact before the 2020 presidential race to be competitive? And do Republicans have good reason to feel confident about having an advantage in the Electoral College?

Sizing Up the States in 2020

Looking ahead to the 2020 presidential campaign, the Cook Political Report doesn’t rank a single state that voted for Hillary Clinton as a toss-up, although four states she carried — Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Nevada — are listed as “Leans Democrat.”

On the other hand, the prognosticators at Cook list five states that Trump carried — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — as toss-ups. All but Arizona voted twice for President Obama, and all five states voted for President Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996.

Together, those five states have a combined total of 86 electoral votes. Trump got 304 electoral votes in 2016, and the loss of those five states would drop his total to 218, well below the 270 needed to win.

Protecting Our Vote 2020

Adding up the states that the Cook Political Report ranks as safely, likely, or leaning Democrat, the Democratic nominee should start with a minimum of 232 electoral votes, the site reports. Republicans start with a similar number, 220.

The website Crystal Ball offers a similar but slightly different projection of how the 2020 presidential race looks, ranking Arizona, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin as toss-ups. Crystal Ball has Florida leaning Republican and Michigan leaning Democrat; they have only 46 electoral votes (counting Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District — Nebraska and Maine both award electoral votes by the total in individual congressional districts) as being up for grabs. If the Democrats were to win all the toss-up states in 2020, Trump would get 258 electoral votes, just 12 short of a majority.

Both the Cook Political Report and Crystal Ball are predicting an extremely tight and competitive presidential race in this deeply divided nation. It seems likely the ongoing debate over the National Popular Vote Compact will divide voters as well. In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed the National Popular Vote bill into law on March 15, even as polls showed a clear split among voters on the idea.

Polling on the issue found that 47 percent of likely Colorado voters approved of changing the way Colorado awards its electoral votes — while 47 percent opposed it. As the pollsters noted, opinion largely followed along party lines.


Where else do you see journalism of this quality and value?

Please help us do more. Make a tax-deductible contribution now.

Our Comment Policy

Keep it civilized, keep it relevant, keep it clear, keep it short. Please do not post links or promotional material. We reserve the right to edit and to delete comments where necessary.

print

24 responses to “Blue States Are Banding Together to Sidestep the Electoral College”

  1. Evan says:

    An even more important problem to take on is the question of how our votes are counted. Right now they are counted mostly by electronic voting machines in which the software that controls them is kept secret by the companies who make the machines. We have privatized our elections and are letting our votes be counted in secret. Our exit polls and other polling have been inaccurate since these voting machines were introduced in 2002.We should use paper ballots counted in public like Germany and other real democracies use. In Germany it takes a week to count the paper ballots but the winners are announced on election night based on the exit polls, which have never been more than 1/2 a percent off of the final results in 50 or 60 years. That is how accurate our exit polls used to be before the electronic, hackable, voting machines were introduced here.

  2. Kudzu Bob says:

    The adoption of the Electoral College was a part of the original deal that made the USA possible. Its elimination means that the original deal no longer applies. Only a dictatorship will hold the country together then, but perhaps that is the idea.

  3. Doug says:

    The two party system has connived for years to open our borders to illegal immigration. That way our electoral college way of deciding national referendums (nearly always electing the POTUS) can be shown as deficient in representing the will of “the people”. When a popular majority have flocked to the huge urban centers, craving gov’t handouts (entitlements), and want more and more of the same, they will, of course, vote for socialism and deny the ethics upon which this Nation was founded. Those ethics still live in the “fly over” parts of the Union. But popular voting (one person, one vote) will decide all. And that means the laws and referendums will be decided by the popular majority, not by the sovereign states. Functionally, “the states” will cease to exist.

    The electoral college is all that stands between the urban majority tyrannizing over the rural minority. So the destruction of the EC is a key plank of socialists in both parties. The granularity of sovereign states cannot be controlled effectively from a Fed center. That is how it was originally intended, to safe guard liberty. But socialists want control and an end to individual liberty. The irony is: “one person one vote” sounds like the ideal form of individual liberty. When all it really is is the tyranny of the majority over the minority.

  4. Dmac says:

    I’m anything but brilliant and would appreciate anyone telling why, as resident of Oregon, I should vote in national elections. The president has been elected by the time my vote is considered. I vote but may well not vote in the future. Please explain why I’d be wrong.

  5. Walter says:

    USC prohibits conspiracy to subvert Constitution. All office holders are sworn to uphold Constitution. Constitution defines how Prez get ‘lected. I agree though > “don’t be stupid” is a good idea.

    The point is, amigo, that, if the by-pass of Constitution & Electoral College happens, then the outcome of an “election” will again be decided by a junta, er a “court”, not by the Constitutionally mandated procedures.

    Either way, the “election” will be seen as, and be, illegitimate.

    The Constitution provides for disputed outcomes to be decided by the Congress, Gore v Bushie notwithstanding.

    • Dontbe Anidiot says:

      But we have come to a point where we now have sworn office holders who appear indifferent or outright sympathetic to those found guilty of Federal crimes, as well as the people who elect them.

      The same people who continually lie, for each other and themselves, who pretend that Russia isn’t hacking our voting machines, threaten witnesses via twitter, ask subordinates to fire the head of the Special Counsel, etc.

      All this evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors within The Mueller report and one Political Party simply ignores it or claims it exonerates Trump.

      What/Who, in your view, is more corrupt that an elected Representatives who routinely ignores our own National Security Experts on threats against our election infrastructure?

      If voting machines were indeed hacked in Florida, as it says in The Mueller Report, what is the current Political Party in charge of the two most powerful branches of Government in the world going to do about it? Ask an enemy of the state for MORE help?

    • Rajani Isa says:

      The Constitution does not mandate HOW the electoral votes are cast. It leaves that up to the states, as evidence by the fact no one has challenged Maine or Nebraska deciding their votes differently (their votes are decided on a district-by-district basis, not a statewide one).

  6. Walter says:

    It’s probably illegal to conspire to undermine the Electoral College. It’s going to result in an “election” being decided by the Supreme Court, with the result that the “elected” persons will not be in a position of power, but subservient to it.

  7. Daniel Strozewski says:

    I agree both parties are owned and have been owned for some time. You can label the US as anything you like – it is however ruled by an Oligarchy and Corporations buying what they want. When folks on the right and left understand this only then can we speak about how to move forward

  8. james says:

    My take is that both parties are corrupt to the core and electing either side changes nothing for the better.

    • Dontbe Anidiot says:

      30+ indictments 5+ guilty pleas so wtf are you talking about suggesting “both sides” are the same? That is absolute BS.

    • John says:

      I was Republican for a long time and I can tell you that both parties are not the same.

      The Republicans are on a whole new level of corrupt. Especially now.

  9. (1) The United States of America IS a Republic of the individual States.
    (2) The Electoral College was founded to protect the equality of ALL states.
    (3) The United States of America IS NOT a “democracy.”
    (4) Progressives seek to make the USA into a “Democratcy” where the few populous Democrat (“Blue”) States always have more votes than the other States.
    (5) Use of catch phrases like “National Popular Vote Compact” purposely obfuscates points (1-4) above.

    • Baronscarpia says:

      1) Correct
      2) Incorrect
      3) Incorrect
      4) Incorrect
      5) Tough to obfuscate falsehoods

    • James Butler says:

      Absolutely correct on ALL points. Not sure how anyone can refute that using facts, and not just opinions. My insane governor just voted to do this. Now my state with a tiny population will NEVER have another voice in an election again. CA and NY will decide all elections. Stupid is as stupid does. We have the electoral college for a reason. And I am not a Republican.

    • gngl says:

      “Now my state with a tiny population will NEVER have another voice in an election again.”

      Actually, it makes all people’s votes count no matter what. Otherwise there’s practically no point voting blue in a heavily red state or voting red in a heavily blue state.

    • John says:

      Your state won’t have a voice, YOU will. States shouldn’t have voices, people should.

      The popular vote is the only vote that makes sense to elect a president.

      CA and NY are indeed very populous, but in a popular vote they decide absolutely nothing- they are states. The people within the US decide and that’s how it should be.

      The electoral college gives lines on a map power, the popular vote gives people power.

      You should never be upset that any state switches to a popular vote. That’s for your benefit.

    • Dylan Robnett says:

      We can never forget that we live in the UNITED STATES of America and, as these words indicate, fifty sovereign states came together to create a union with limited powers to further a common interest in peace and prosperity. For this reason, every state must have some representation beyond a pure tyranny of the majority. This is the same reason why every state has exactly two senators and I would expect any senator running for president to appreciate that.

    • Dontbe Anidiot says:

      50 states came together? The Constitutional Convention had 13 States at the time, as it was still the 18th century.

      The best way to protect our Union against tyranny is to protect the Democratic process in which we use to elect our Representatives, don’t elect anyone to Congress who hide/lie about their business ties to foreign military’s and corrupt oligarchs, for starters.

      In fact, it might be a good idea to REQUIRE a thorough vetting of our elected officials before they are sworn into office. Require that The People working in Government submit their Tax Returns for auditing, require physiological evaluation to determine mental state, etc.

    • John says:

      Even in the popular vote the minority still gets their voices heard through state elections, and state legislation…that’s what it’s there for.

      The president however, is the president of all citizens and should be voted for by a simple popular vote.

    • Dontbe Anidiot says:

      A Republic can be a type of Democracy, called a Representative Democracy, which is exactly what the United States is and how it was intended to be.

      It’s literally written in the Declaration of Independence and ENSHRINED in our Constitution in such terms as “popular sovereignty” and that the Federal Government exists to serve “the people”, ie “We the people”..

      It’s incredibly disingenuous and utterly ahistorical to suggest the US is not a Democracy. It’s like saying the Civil War “was never about Slavery”.. only the ill informed, or manipulators, try to contradict encyclopedias and other validated historical facts with such obvious propaganda.