Americans are increasingly divided along party lines not only about the presidential candidates but how the President should be elected. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), which aims to replace the state-based Electoral College with a single plebiscite, has benefited from this polarization as Democratic state legislatures approve the compact at a faster pace.
On Nov. 3 voters in increasingly blue Colorado will decide to accept or reject their Legislature’s 2019 entry into the compact. States representing 196 electoral votes have joined the compact out of 270 needed for it to go into effect. If voters reject Proposition 113, Colorado would be the first state to join the compact and then leave—underscoring the compact’s instability and blunting its momentum.
If voters approve it, they could be paving the way for the destruction of America’s two-century-old presidential election system. Democratic-controlled Virginia—and perhaps Minnesota and North Carolina if Democrats do well in legislative elections there—could bring the total number of electoral votes among compact signatories well into the 200s before the 2024 presidential election.
Under the Electoral College system, states award their electors to whichever candidate won the most votes in that state (or, in Nebraska and Maine, in a given congressional district). By signing onto the NPVIC, states effectively disenfranchise themselves. They agree to give away their electors to a candidate most of their own voters may have rejected.
Yet legislators are increasingly interested in empowering their national party rather than their state and its voters. Fueled by out-of-state contributions, Colorado’s anti-Electoral College campaign is outspending the opposition.
We believe the Electoral College plays an important role protecting election integrity and balancing geographic interests. But even voters sympathetic to the idea of a popular vote should think about what this extra-constitutional scheme would mean for the country.
The 2020 vote-by-mail controversies have offered Americans a glimpse of what it might look like to have disputed election results. If the NPVIC went into effect by, say, 2028, the 2020 uncertainty would look trivial. The U.S. would have two parallel election systems—one in its tradition and the Constitution, and one agreed to by a minority of legislatures representing larger and more liberal states.
The departure of just one or two states could sink the compact in an election year and upend candidate strategies. That could happen if Democrats saw an advantage in the Electoral College map—as they did in 2012—or if partisan control of a state changed. Courts could strike down the compact under the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause.
A popular vote election could also encourage sectional candidates who can compete in just a few states. The general presidential election could resemble a primary—with no runoff. Oh, and there’s nothing stopping progressive states from lowering their voting age from 18, among other changes for partisan advantage in the national vote tally. Since most voting rules are made at the state level, Republican states might try to jury-rig their own process in response.
This is not a path to greater democratic legitimacy. As an old British political refrain goes: “Reform? Aren’t things bad enough already?”