The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact: An Explainer

Explainers: Constitution Democracy Elections Voting Rights
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact - Democracy Explainer

What is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact?

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) is a proposal that would retain the institution of the Electoral College while also ensuring that the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote is elected President of the United States.

What is the current process for electing the U.S. President?

The Electoral College is a body of electors that is responsible for electing the President and Vice President. Electors represent each state and Washington, D.C. and are equal to the number of U.S. Representatives and Senators from that state. Under the current presidential electoral process, a candidate must win a majority of votes of the Electoral College – at least 270 of 538 votes – rather than the majority of the national votes cast to become President.

How are Electoral College votes won?

Nearly all states have a winner-take-all policy in which the candidate who receives the majority of the state’s popular vote wins all the electoral votes of that state, even if the candidate only wins by a small margin. The two states that do not practice winner-take-all with their Electoral College votes are Maine and Nebraska, which use the Congressional District Method to award their Electoral College votes.

What is the difference between deciding between electoral college votes and the national votes cast?

Most of the time, the presidential candidate who wins the electoral vote also wins the national popular vote, but not all the time. In five elections, one candidate won the popular vote, while the other candidate won the Electoral College and, with it, the U.S. presidency. Two of those five instances have occurred since 2000 – in 2000 and 2016. 

Theoretically, a candidate could win the Electoral College with only 23 percent of the national popular vote. In other words, a candidate can win the presidency even if a vast majority of the country’s voters cast ballots for someone else. 

What’s the history of the Electoral College and why is it problematic?

The Founding Fathers had multiple reasons why they established the Electoral College. They worried that giving voters the ability to directly elect the President gave the public too much power, even though only land-owning white men could vote at the time. Since election by popular vote was considered too democratic, they explored alternative approaches and made additional considerations. Among the factors that played a big role were race and slavery.

The three-fifths compromise counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a person in population counts used to assign the number of U.S. Representatives to a state; however, enslaved people were excluded from voting and every other form of democratic participation. This gave slave states – and white slave owners –  disproportionate political power in Congress. The populations of the north and the south were relatively the same, but these counts included enslaved people who could not vote. A president elected by a national popular vote would skew toward the will of the northern states given that a major portion of the population of southern states were nonvoting enslaved persons. It was in the interest of southern states to leverage the additional power they had already negotiated through the three-fifths compromise to elect the President, which led to the creation of the Electoral College. The Electoral College was designed to promote and protect the power of southern whites. To this day, remnants of this institutional racism and undemocratic core remain ingrained in the Electoral College.

How does the Electoral College’s undemocratic and racist legacy impact us today?

States with lower populations have more representation in Congress relative to their population – since all states have two Senators, regardless of their size. With Electoral College votes being apportioned based on congressional representation, voters in these smaller states also have disproportionate influence in the Electoral College. For example, under the Electoral College, one vote in California currently wields the same political power as about 3.2 votes in Wyoming while the population of California is more than 67 times the population of Wyoming. This is not just unequal, it is unrepresentative as states with lower populations tend to be whiter. 

What is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC)?

The NPVIC is an agreement among states to guarantee the election of the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote. When a state joins the NPVIC, it agrees to commit all of its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, rather than the candidate who wins their individual state. 

The compact only becomes binding when enough states join the NPVIC to reach the 270 electoral college votes threshold required to elect the President. If passed in enough states, the NPVIC would ensure a simple majority of voting Americans decide the outcome of presidential elections.

The NPVIC would leave intact the current structure and electors of the Electoral College, but their votes would be based on the national popular vote results rather than their individual states’ results. 

The NPVIC places the outcome of a presidential election firmly in the will of the people, or a majority of voting Americans. A 2020 Pew Research Center poll found that 58 percent of Americans support replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote. 

What is the current status of the NPVIC?

Since Maryland first enacted the NPVIC in 2007, a total of 16 states and Washington, D.C. have joined the compact with more interest than ever before. In early 2019, the NPVIC was introduced in nineteen state legislatures, and passed into law in Colorado, Delaware, New Mexico, and Oregon, marking a record number of states joining the NPVIC in a single year.

Currently, NPVIC member states comprise a total of 205 Electoral College votes, which is 75.9 percent of the 270 votes needed to enact the compact. This means that additional states totaling at least 65 electoral votes have to join the NPVIC for it to go into effect. 

As of June 2023, the bill has passed in at least one chamber in an additional eight states, totaling 78 potential electoral votes.

How would the NPVIC change the way candidates campaign? 

Under the current system, candidates focus on swing states, only making a few appearances outside of the currently-competitive handful, including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Under the NPVIC, all votes across the country would be weighed equally. Thus, candidates would no longer be incentivized to focus on the small handful of so-called swing states that are often the most competitive and could swing for any candidate. Instead, with the NPVIC, communities traditionally ignored by campaigns such as conservative voters in upstate New York and southern Illinois, or progressive voters in Austin and Charleston might garner more attention from campaigns and more representation from elected officials.

Currently, a Republican candidate has little incentive to campaign in California’s central valley, which leans conservative, because California’s 55 Electoral College votes typically go to the Democratic Party’s candidate. Under the NPVIC, these votes could be integral to getting a Republican candidate to the White House, and the area would likely see heavy campaign activity, despite not being in a ‘competitive state’.

How would the NPVIC impact voter turnout?

Voter turnout nationwide would likely increase under the NPVIC, particularly in states that are considered red/Republican or blue/Democrat. Voters in these states often feel that their votes do not matter, and thus do not participate in elections.  

The NPVIC would help to solve issues of misrepresentation by weighing every vote equally in a national popular vote, so every American can truly have their voice heard at the same level. The NPVIC would incentivize people to vote for their favorite candidate knowing that their vote directly affects the outcome of the election.

What can you do to help pass the NPVIC and ensure the President of the United States of America is elected by the voters?

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is one way to improve and strengthen our democracy by strength. In order to help ensure that the President of the United States is actually elected by the American people, there are a couple things that you can do.

  1. First, you can check your state’s status on the NPVIC here

If your state is not yet a member of the NPVIC, you can contact your state legislators urging them to pass legislation to enter your state into the NPVIC.

Published March 22, 2023
Updated June 6th, 2023