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Why the NPV Takes us No Where

One of the ideas for election reform that emerged after the 2004 election was the National Popular Vote. The theory is simple, states will enter into gentleman’s agreements with other states and  collectively they will commit their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner.

David Sirota recently argued for the NPV. For the record, David is one of my favorite bloggers but I think he is wrong on this issue.  The whole logic of NPV is that a somewhat equal number of Democratic and Republic states will sign on.  As David himself acknowledges many of these likely Republican candidates are pushing a plan that allocates electoral college votes by congressional district.

What both these plans do is question the logic of electoral college. While there is much to dislike about EC, is there anything worth preserving? Many seem to have forgotten the one thing EC aimed to correct was regional domination in politics. The fear was that a straight NPV would empower a particular region of the country and disenfranchise others. The EC was an attempt to make the national election for president representative of the various regions and the many states.

The biggest problems of EC are shared by NPV. They both are based on plurality rather than majority.  By design they greatly limit the participation of multiple political parties. If too many political parties participate, the plurality shrinks and shrinks until the winner has a minority of voters. Think of Clinton in 1996 when he won with only 43% of the popular vote.

I actually think there is a viable compromise between the NPV on the one hand and EC by congressional district on the other. That compromise is STV, or single transferable vote. This works much like IRV, but with the intent of electing multiple people with one vote. In the case of electoral college, STV is simply the tool that allows electoral votes to be allocated by the proportion of the state popular vote.

Lets take a state like Wisconsin. It has ten electoral votes, so roughly speaking a candidate would get an electoral vote for every 10 % of the state popular vote. I go more in depth with how it would actually work in Wisconsin Must Lead. In addition since its a preferential voting system all votes are counted not just those for the top two candidates.


6 responses to “Why the NPV Takes us No Where

  1. John Koza

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill is enacted in a group of states possessing 270 or more electoral votes, all of the electoral votes from those states would be awarded, as a bloc, to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    It is irrevelant whether the states adding up to the requisite 270 electoral votes tend to vote Democratic or Republican. Once there is a bloc of 270 electoral votes committed to the national popular vote winner, the nation will have a nationwide system for electing the President.

    The plurality-majority debate is also a side issue. The National Popular Vote plan does not change the status quo on this issue. There are no runoff provisions in any states now, and a candidate could win nationally without winning
    a national majority. There is no apparent public consensus that there is a problem. Despite the fact that no presidential candidate received an absolute majority of the popular votes in 1992, 1996, and 2000, that third parties frequently affect the outcome of presidential elections (e.g., Nader in 2000, Perot in 1992, Anderson in 1980), and that the states clearly already have the power to create a run-off election for president is they so desire, no state requires a run-off election if the leading presidential candidate does not get a majority. Also, there is no apparent consensus as to a solution to this “problem.” There have been constitutional amendments proposed in Congress in recent years for nationwide election of the President, with different thresholds (50%, 45%, or 40%) as well as proposals with no threshold at all. There is also some sentiment for instant run-off voting (used by some cities and soon to be tried in Vermont in congressional races only) and fusion voting (long used in New York and which may be installed in Oregon this year).

    The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President arises from the winner-take-all rule (currently used by 48 of 50 states) under which all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes in the state. If the partisan divide in a state is not initially closer than about 46%-54%, no amount of campaigning during a brief presidential campaign is realistically going to reverse the outcome in the state. As a result, presidential candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the concerns in voters of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Instead, candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. As a result, 88% of the money and visits (and attention) is focused on just 9 states. Fully 99% of the money goes to just 16 states. More than two-thirds of the country is left out.

    Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide.

    The National Popular Vote bill has 366 legislative sponsors in 47 states. It has been signed into law in Maryland. Since its introduction in February 2006, the bill has passed by 12 legislative houses (one house in Colorado, Arkansas, New Jersey, and North Carolina, and two houses in Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, and California).


  2. John,

    I am familiar with NPV. Yes, Maryland has signed it into law but no where else. The legislative session is done so technically at this time NPV is back to 0. 1 state is not a success in my view.

    I agree with you about the problems of winner take all, NPV does not alter that in anyway. It still uses a first past the post election system that disenfranchises the majority of voters.

    If I had to choose I think the EC by district is much better than NPV. The NPV just further institutionalizes a system in which only government sanctioned political parties can have democratic participation.

    The only reform that I would support is STV. In fact it gets as close to a direct popular vote as is technically possible. It does this without throwing away any legitimate votes.

    Both NPV, and the current EC throw away all votes besides the first two candidates. With a preferential voting system those votes will be counted too. STV, or proportional representation, directly links proportion of popular vote to the electoral college.

    In all honesty you are being naive. A NPV is highly unlikely to make all 50 states competitive. If one can get a majority in New York, New Jersey, California, Texas etc, it makes campaigning in the rest of the country pointless (the initial reason for EC BTW). STV, on the other hand, is a system in which small changes in the popular vote will produce gains in the EC. Not only is the duopoly competing against itself but the minor parties as well. This will give us a more democratic, energetic, competitive, and inclusive politics.

  3. Rob Richie ⋅

    Henry — I’m a big fan of STV for legislative elections. But despite the existence of electors, presidential elections are not legislative election. No one cares about the electoral college being “representative” — who the heck are electors but generally a bunch of faceless party hacks whose only function is to step in for the people and elect a president? No, give me a a fair elections for president.

    When every vote counts equally in a national popular vote system, every act of participation and every vote is equally meaningful. We are quite experienced with how direct elections work because we have them for nearly every other election in the United States. A candidate doesn’t win the gubernatorial election in Wisconsin by writing off most of the state. It’s a free market for votes, and if you don’t try to get votes that are ready to be cast for you, you’re bound to lose to someone who goes after every potential vote.

    As an aside, trying to win proportional allocation of electors state by state will never fly politically and is a policy disaster. See FairVote’s critique of trying to divide electors within states in our “Fuzzy Math” report posted at:

  4. Sorry, but in a NPV system all votes are not counted equally. As in all first past the post systems a good chunk of votes are simply thrown out. All first past the post systems throw out all votes except the top two candidates. You are not being truthful when you say every act of participation and vote is treated equally.

    I care that the EC is representative of the popular vote. STV, or proportional representation is more representative of the popular will than a first past the post system.

    I certainly think a STV system has much more of a chance than the undemocratic notion of a National Popular Vote. There is a direct relationship between the EC and your states popular vote. If you are a third party and get 20% of the popular vote, you should get that proportion of the EC.

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