The Case for the National Popular Vote

United States map with the words "One Person One Vote"

The presidential election is generally portrayed as a battle to win states and their accompanying electoral votes. Last night in a CNN town hall, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren railed against this system, saying “We need to make sure that every vote counts. I think everybody ought to have to come and ask for your vote.” The fact that candidates running for president don’t think the current system gives incentives for candidates to come and ask for your vote should give Americans pause.

"We need to make sure that every vote counts."

Rather than doing the outreach necessary to win the most support possible from every voter across the country, a presidential campaign instead uses a poll-tested strategy to amass a string of state victories in an effort to secure the winning number of electoral votes. The vote margin of each victory is irrelevant. In fact, candidates have no incentive to spend time in states deemed to be “safe” for their party.

From the beginning of the Republic, this election system has been fundamentally inconsistent with the idea of fair representation upon which our country was founded. Millions of American voters are taken for granted, and essentially irrelevant, because they don’t live in competitive states. Fortunately, there is a growing nationwide movement to move towards a system that would value voters equally.

The Electoral College Falls Short in Today’s Shrinking Battleground

Under the Electoral College system, the presidency is awarded to the candidate who wins at least 270 of the 538 available electoral votes. Illustrating the effects of such a system for The Washington Post, Reed Hundt, chairman and co-founder of Making Every Vote Count, said that in the 2020 elections, “nearly 40 states, with about 80 percent of the country’s population, will be ignored by both candidates” for president. This is not democratic.

Then there is the second problem – the potential for a conflict between the popular vote and the electoral vote tally. The candidates who won the popular vote have lost in the Electoral College in two out of the last five presidential elections. This occurs when the few swing states all happen to swing one way by small margins. There is every reason to fear this may happen again in 2020 because the conditions that made this happen two years ago have not changed substantially.   

A third problem is the fact that the Electoral College over-values small states at the expense of big ones. Because electoral votes are given out based on the number of seats each state holds in Congress, including the Senate where every state gets two, voters in a small state like Wyoming have vastly more electoral clout that voters in a large state like California or Texas.

But that does not necessarily mean the Electoral College is good for the small states. In fact, it hurts voters in small states, not just large ones. In an analysis of the 2008 campaign, the nonprofit FairVote found that “of the 18 states with the smallest populations, 10 experienced absolutely no television ads or candidate visits with public events” during peak campaign season. “Eleven of the 12 smallest states did not have a single campaign visit.” And with increasingly sophisticated computer modeling and the tendency of voters to self-sort, these trends are accelerating. During the 2012 campaign, just three states – Florida, Ohio and Virginia – accounted for a huge percentage of the actual campaigning for President.

Movement for Election Based on Popular Vote Gains Steam

Under the U.S. Constitution, states have the power to determine how they award their electoral votes in national elections. States are increasingly showing that the will of their voters is to do away with the winner-take-all laws, which award all of its electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes within the state. They are signing up for the National Popular Vote Compact.

Colorado has become the latest state to join an agreement to elect presidents based on who wins the national popular vote. *Now that makes 12 states with 172 Electoral College votes that have joined the compact. *Another 10 states with 89 Electoral College votes have bills in the legislative process. This compact takes effect only when enough states sign on to guarantee that the national popular vote winner wins the presidency. That means states with a combined total of 270 electoral votes – a majority of the Electoral College – must join the compact for it to take effect. It would be a legally binding agreement that requires those states to select their presidential electors based on who wins the most individual votes nationwide, regardless of which candidate wins in the state.

Paul is CLC's Senior Vice President.