Last month, Minnesota brought the U.S. one step closer to reforming the Electoral College and ushering in a national popular vote for president. How? By passing a little-known legislative provision called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.
The Compact is an ingenious workaround to the frustrating reality that fully abolishing the Electoral College requires a constitutional amendment — a nonstarter in this political moment. Instead of scrapping the Electoral College, the Compact simply requires that participating states award all of their presidential electors to whichever candidate wins the most votes nationally. But critically, the Compact doesn’t go into effect until states representing the majority of Electoral College votes — that’s 270 votes — have signed on. At that point, each state’s law will kick into action, and the winner of the popular vote will be guaranteed a presidential victory.
Minnesota is the 16th state to join. That brings the Compact’s total number of electoral votes up to 205 — just 65 short of a majority. It’s an exciting development, for sure. But without significant shifts in party control of state legislatures, it’s unlikely to be repeated more than a couple of times.
Most of the pro-democracy states — which, at this point, are states controlled by Democrats — have already joined the Compact, and the remaining blue states are too small to contribute many electoral votes. That leaves Electoral College reformers reliant on passing the Compact in states at least partially governed by lawmakers hostile to democratic reform unless new leaders take over.
Strategically, then, the path to a national popular vote demands getting laser-focused on electing pro-democracy lawmakers in state legislatures. Flip the states, and ending the Electoral College as we know it comes within reach.
The Electoral College is an undeniably problematic institution. It was created to assuage the founders’ fear that a leader elected by the full public, not just the privileged elite, would enact “bad” laws. Southern states in particular lamented that a popular vote would put them at a disadvantage, since about a third of their population was enslaved and therefore ineligible to vote.
The proposed solution? Have presidents be elected not directly by the voting public but rather by “electors.” States would receive a set number of electors in proportion to their congressional delegation — that is, their representatives in both the U.S. House and Senate. Southern states liked this plan since their delegations were inflated by the three-fifths compromise, which let them bolster their congressional representation by counting each enslaved individual as three-fifths of a person — without having to give those individuals any voting rights or direct political representation.
While the three-fifths compromise has since been abolished, this process of electing presidents continues to skew election outcomes. It gives disproportionate voting power to small-population states, which get a minimum of three congressional representatives and therefore three electoral votes. As a result, a vote cast by a person in Wyoming is more politically influential than a vote cast in any other state.
Moreover, nearly every state uses a “winner-take-all” system, in which all of the state’s electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the majority of votes in the state. (This is in contrast to a proportional system, where if a candidate wins 60 percent of votes, they get about 60 percent of the state’s electors.) This approach drives America’s infamous “swing state” problem: Since candidates can count on most states to hand all of their electors to one party or the other, they focus the vast majority of their campaigning on only a handful of closely contested states.
The problem isn’t just that voters outside of swing states are marginalized — though they undoubtedly are. It’s that across the entire country, anyone who is part of the political minority in their state effectively has their vote invalidated, regardless of whether they are actually part of the national majority. You’re a conservative in New York or a liberal in Texas? Sorry, but the Electoral College fully disregards your vote.
These dynamics drive voter apathy, undermine public confidence in the democratic process and weaken the perceived legitimacy of the elected president. They also degrade democracy by fomenting minority rule. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won nearly 2.9 million more votes than Donald Trump, and yet she lost the presidency. The people spoke — but the system did not listen.
The Compact would fix these problems in a single stroke. All that would matter in determining the presidency is who won the support of the most Americans.
It would be heartwarming if a popular vote could be enacted with broad bipartisan support. Historically, there were enough pro-democracy lawmakers in both major parties to adopt essential reforms in red, purple and blue states. But today, democracy is fully polarized, and Republicans widely believe that the Electoral College serves their interests. By necessity, the path to a national popular vote runs through Democratic states.
The set of potentially winnable states falls into two tiers. Tier 1 is currently solid-blue states that haven’t joined the Compact yet. There are only two left: Michigan (16 electoral votes), where the House Elections Committee recently approved a National Popular Vote bill, and Maine (four votes), where popular vote legislation passed both chambers in 2019 but failed a final House vote. If both states passed national popular vote provisions, we’d still be 45 electors away from the 270-vote tipping point.
Tier 2 consists of states currently under Republican or divided-party control that could plausibly achieve a Democratic trifecta in the near future. These include Pennsylvania (20 votes), Virginia (13 votes), Arizona (11 votes), Wisconsin (10 votes), Nevada (six votes) and New Hampshire (four votes). Any path to victory requires bringing on Pennsylvania, where Republicans currently hold the Senate; even if every other Tier 1 and Tier 2 state were to join the Compact, we would still be one vote short of 270.
To be sure, even a successful red-to-blue state strategy doesn’t guarantee a national popular vote. Some skeptics have raised serious concerns about the Compact’s constitutionality, while others argue the Compact can only go into effect with the consent of Congress. While there are thoughtful rebuttals to these concerns, it is not entirely clear whether the Compact will stand up to judicial scrutiny once it tips into effect.
All the more reason to pursue a state-flipping strategy: Even if the Compact is ultimately deemed a political no-go, the work of electing pro-democracy legislators will have lasting downstream benefits for other important policies, including much-needed election and voting reforms. Now more than ever, democracy advocates need to seek out and seize opportunities to break out of their policy silos and improve the political feasibility of all democracy innovations.
Charlotte Hill is the interim director of the Democracy Policy Initiative at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Hill writes about how structural reforms impact American democracy.