Jackman Blau

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC)

In Constitution, Law, Uncategorized on 21 January 2012 at 1:38 am

There have been at least two instances in modern US history where a Presidential candidate lost the election even though more people voted for that candidate (a.k.a winning the “National Popular Vote”)*.  This is possible because only the votes cast by the 538 members of the electoral college determine the outcome of a Presidential race.  Some see this as evidence of a fundamentally flawed, failed, and/or unfair system for electing Presidents.

The proposed solution currently gaining the most traction is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NPVIC, which would change Presidential elections from our current electoral college system to a system that simply awards the Presidency to the candidate who wins the National Popular Vote.  The NPVIC is a legislative agreement taken up in state legislatures, stating that when enough states have adopted the NPVIC such that the sum of their electoral college votes totals to at least 270 (the minimum needed to win the Presidency), those states having adopted the NPVIC will award all of their electoral college votes, and thus the Presidency, to the candidate who won the National Popular Vote.

The NPVIC in interesting in its own regard, but let us address the fundamental issues at hand: Is our electoral college system in need of change?  Is this system, in which the victorious candidate does not necessarily have a majority of votes, unfair?  And if so, is the National Popular Vote the proper solution?  The principle arguments against the electoral college system is that Presidential candidates focus most of their effort in swing-states, ignoring the states whose outcome is predictable (for example, Texas will likely vote Republican and California will likely vote Democratic) and that not every vote is equal on a national footing.  The principle argument in favor of the National Popular Vote is that the Presidential candidate who wins the National Popular Vote should win the Presidency.  All of these arguments are fair, but they are not the whole of the argument.  While our current electoral college system is far from ideal, the National Popular Vote does not improve upon it, does not solve any pressing problem, and strays from the principle of federalism upon which our government is crafted.

Perhaps the issue of most interest to the political junky is how the nature of the Presidential campaign would change if the NPVIC was enacted.  Currently, Presidential candidates concentrate most of their attention campaigning in a handful of swing-states that could go either Republican or Democratic.  (To be clear, this is not due to the electoral college system, but instead to the winner-take-all system prescribed by state-law in nearly every state.)  It is argued that under the NPVIC, Presidential campaigns would compete in a greater number of states across the United States.  While the NPVIC does eliminate the problem of swing-states, it’s not clear that the alternative under it is any better.

The objective of a political campaign is always to gain the most votes needed to win in the most efficient manner possible.  Therefore, the general campaign strategy under the NPVIC would be to concentrate on regions of the US encompassing the greatest number of swing-voters.  These swing-voter rich regions would effectively become the new swing-states: campaigns would concentrate their efforts in winning these “swing-regions” rather than whole states.  Whether this means candidates would campaign more or less broadly around the US than they do now is difficult to gauge, but extremely targeted campaigns would not be eliminated, and regions of the US would still be ignored.

More inherently, the NPVIC is strongly at odds with the concept of federalism under which the Constitution was written and the federal government thereby established.  The philosophy behind the NPVIC is that if a majority of people vote for one item over another, then that item with the majority vote should win.  This, however, makes up only part of the philosophy behind the federal government.  Rather than concerning itself only with the people of the United States, the Constitution balances the will of the people with the will of the states, both large and small.  One need only consider the make-up of Congress to come to this realization: The number of Representatives per state in the US House of Representatives – the body representing the general will of the American people – is apportioned by population, whereas the number of Senators per state in the US Senate – the body representing the general will of the states – is two for every state, regardless of population.  California, with a population of over 37 million people, has as much say in the US Senate as does Wyoming, with a population of only half a million people.  For a bill to pass Congress, it must win majority approval both in the body representing the will of the people & and the body representing the will of the states.  One could say that the people of a state with a low population such as Wyoming are over-represented in Congress, but this argument hinges on the false premise that Congress was meant to be proportionally representative.

Clearly then, the structure of the federal government balances the will of the people with the will of the states, both large and small.  This is no different when it comes to the election of President.  The National Popular Vote only represents the will of the people, completely ignoring that of the states.  Our current electoral college system is much more in accordance with the spirit of federalism in the United States.  Because the number of electoral votes in a given state is determined by adding that state’s number of Representatives with that state’s number of Senators (always two), the balance of the wills’ of the people and the states is safeguarded.

To conclude, The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is a solution in search of a problem.  It’s not clear that Presidential campaigns would improve in any significant way under the NPVIC, and the notion that the winner of the National Popular Vote ought to win the Presidency completely disregards the founding principle of federalism upon which the United States’ form of government is built.



*In 2000, George W. Bush won the Presidency with 271 electoral votes and 50,456,002 individual votes.  Al Gore lost with only 266 electoral votes, but received 50,999,897 individual votes – over half a million more than Mr Bush.


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