In February 2019, Colorado became the 12th state to pass the compact for the National Popular Vote. If approximately nine additional states pass this agreement, it effectively becomes a new way to elect our president. There is a scenario where this can actually happen by 2024, despite unified Republican opposition. Could this actually happen? This blog post breaks down the real deal when it comes to information (and misinformation) around the National Popular Vote.
The Role of Battleground States
The importance of the so-called “battleground states” or “swing states” can’t be overstated. When you start to dig into this, it’s amazing how much the current system distorts “who matters” and “what matters” to politicians.
Battleground states receive:
- 7 percent more presidentially controlled grants
- 2x disaster declarations
- More Superfund and No Child Left Behind exemptions
- Trade protection, for example steel and coal.
In 48 out of 50 states, electoral votes are allocated on a “winner take all” basis. This means that the candidate that gets at least 51 percent of the state’s popular votes gets 100 percent of the state’s electoral votes. Pundits can disagree on which states are toss ups or are “leaning” Republican or Democratic but there is no dispute on the “solid” states.
Learn more about the limitations our two-party system place on voters. Read Our Two-Party Monopoly Practices Pseudo Competition.
2020 Presidential Election
Will your vote matter in the 2020 presidential election? These two tables break down whose votes matter and why:
No Need to Vote
|Solid Democratic States||Solid Republican States|
|California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington
|Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, Wyoming|
Your Vote Might Determine the Election Results
|“Leaning” or “Toss Up” States|
|Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin
Not surprisingly, voter engagement and turnout is significantly lower in the 38 – 40 states that are merely “spectators” to the presidential voting process.
Spectator States Disenfranchise Voter Blocks
This pattern of marginalizing the voters in the predictable “spectator” states also creates a pattern of disenfranchising specific groups. This is true across the political spectrum. Let’s take three examples:
- Coal miners matter a lot more than lumberjacks
- Both groups are approximately the same size, are poorly paid and work in dangerous occupations
- The votes of coal miners count a lot in determining the outcome in Pennsylvania, an important swing state
- Almost all lumberjacks live in states taken for granted by presidential candidates
- Evangelical Protestants are critical to a winning strategy
- Evangelical Protestants compose 25 percent of Michigan residents, 24 percent in Florida, 22 percent in Wisconsin, and 19 percent in both Minnesota and Pennsylvania. Those are all swing states critical to any presidential campaign
- Forget members of religious denominations not concentrated in swing states. A clear example is the seven million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). Although LDS Church members typically vote Republican, 92 percent live in states where the presidential candidates of both parties regard the outcome as preordained.
- Where LDS members are part of a large plurality, such as in Idaho and Utah, their surplus votes are never weighed in a national count.
- Immigrant voting preferences can be safely ignored.
- The majority of immigrants in the last 50 years have moved to only five states: California, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois
- Only one of these states (Florida) is in the battleground category. In the other four, immigrant voters’ preferences for president are taken for granted, overridden, ignored and weighed inequitably.
What are the Primary “Myths” Opposing this Reform?
Myth # 1. Changing to the National Popular Vote would give undue weight to the big cities, making rural areas and small states irrelevant. The first thing to remember is that, under the current system, presidential candidates pay no attention to any small state, with the exception of Nevada and New Hampshire.
Secondly, the facts speak for themselves: Only one-sixth of the country lives in the Democratic-leaning Top 100 cities. This is offset by the one-sixth of the country in the Republican-leaning rural areas. The real battleground would shift to the two-thirds of the country that are evenly split between the major parties.
In the age of electronic media, candidates certainly know how to reach every voter everywhere. Whether a voter lives in New York City (population 8.6 million) or Gold Hill, Colorado (population 230), there’s a way for a Republican and Democratic nominee to pitch their message, via email, Facebook, cell phone, cable or satellite television. It’s inconceivable that the national popular vote campaigns wouldn’t reach out to everyone.
Myth # 2: Shifting to the National Popular Vote would inherently favor the Democrats. It’s true that the Democrats lost the presidency in 2016 and 2000 despite winning the national popular vote. Democrat state legislators are strongly motivated to see that this never happens again. After 2016, Republicans became unanimous in their opposition to this change. So the battle lines are clearly drawn.
It wasn’t always this way, and the facts don’t support this degree of partisanship. Prior to 2016, Republicans such as Newt Gingrich supported this reform. And the nine states that passed the National Popular Vote compact prior to 2016 did so with, on average, 30 percent support from Republican legislators.
Learn more about Gingrich’s strategy to institutionalize obstructionism. Read the Disconnect Between Winning & Governing.
Republican opposition is due in part to the “small state and rural” myth described above. Also, the results from 2000 and 2016 are prominent in everyone’s thinking. But there isn’t an inherent bias in the system. In 2004, John Kerry came close to winning Ohio (which was called late). Had he done so, he would have become President despite losing the popular vote to George W. Bush.
In the 15 presidential elections since 1960, Democrats have received slightly fewer votes (697 million) than Republicans (701 million). But basically, the country has been evenly divided.
If the major parties were in a system that forced them to campaign for every vote – weighted equally – it isn’t clear who would win any given election cycle. We owe it to our democracy to find out.
What are the Uncertainties Around the National Popular Vote?
Passage of the National Popular Vote isn’t assured. There is a path to enactment by 2024 based on Democratic-only support. Given that possibility, we should be aware of the potential uncertainties and drawbacks around this proposal. Be prepared to see the following issues raised:
The National Popular vote will be challenged as unconstitutional. As the National Popular Vote becomes a potential reality, it will certainly be challenged as unconstitutional on the grounds that it is state legislation, as opposed to a constitutional amendment.
Proponents of the National Popular Vote argue that the existing winner-take-all laws were enacted as state legislation, as specified in the constitution. They believe that can be changed or repealed in the same way they were enacted – namely by passing a different state law. At a minimum, this consideration will delay enactment until resolved by the courts.
The National Popular Vote will create an unstable system subject to repeal. A politically motivated state legislature could withdraw from the compact during an election cycle, creating a tipping point that shifts the system back to a focus on the swing states.
To avoid this contingency, there is a blackout provision in the National Popular Vote compact that explicitly prohibits a state from withdrawing during a presidential election year between July 20 and Inauguration Day. However, a withdrawal is theoretically possible before July 20.
The National Popular Vote offers no benefits to independent candidates. Implementation of the National Popular Vote would do nothing to address the stranglehold the two major parties exert in presidential elections.
Next Wave of Structural Reform
Some system of proportional representation might address both the imbalances of the swing states and the exclusion of independent candidates and third parties. This double impact would make this type of reform even “more Democratic.”
The idea of multi-member congressional districts has merit. However, at this point it’s a topic being debated in academic circles, with no real political constituency or momentum. In an ideal world, democracy would be made more representative and competitive through a combination of proportional representation + ranked choice voting + elimination of all party primaries.
This type of comprehensive reform might represent the “next wave” of structural reform. The National Popular Vote compact creates a system in which “Every vote is equal.” That is a huge accomplishment. It’s worthy of support despite potential scenarios around constitutionality, repeal or eventual adoption of an even better reform.
Learn more about how we can achieve structural reform. Read 4 Tactics to Open Competition in U.S. Elections.