Guest Commentary | Little momentum for national-popular-vote compact

Guest Commentary | Little momentum for national-popular-vote compact


On May 24, Connecticut Gov.Dannel Malloy signed into law a bill adding his state to the "National Popular Vote" Interstate Compact. State laws typically arouse little interest from outsiders, but this one generated a few national headlines, as it brings the country a bit closer to a "most popular votes wins" rule for presidential elections.

How close? Not very — about as close as Connecticut is to fellow Compact member Illinois, the third state to join, back in 2008.

The NPVIC was launched more than a decade ago by Maryland. It would surely face strong legal challenges before taking effect, but the first step is to get states that collectively possess at least 270 electoral votes to pass laws stipulating that their presidential electors be chosen according to national, not state, popular vote totals. The legislation that has passed so far — including Connecticut's — does not take effect until NPVIC membership exceeds that threshold, at which point non-participation by other states would be irrelevant, absent faithless electors.

The second last state to join the NPVIC was New York, in 2014, and the electoral vote total of all 12 members (11 states plus DC) sits at 172, far short of the 270 mark. Moreover, current population estimates suggest that the reapportionment of congressional seats that will take place after the 2020 Census will likely see that total decrease by at least two. Foes of the Electoral College hoped that Donald Trump's victory, secured without a plurality of votes nationwide, would kick-start the NPVIC, but so far only Connecticut has jumped. A number of other states have seen new bills introduced or held committee hearings, and a few have had roll calls, but it seems fair to say that the exceptional anger and angst produced by Trump's win did not translate into much momentum for the NPVIC.

In one respect, that is not surprising. While proponents of the NPVIC strive to portray their plan as bipartisan, in almost all cases, state laws to join the Compact have been supported by Democrats and opposed by Republicans. Connecticut's House and Senate roll calls were both pretty close, and both saw nearly perfect separation by party. In the Senate, 18 of 21 yes votes came from Democrats, and all 14 no votes were cast by Republicans. In the House, 76 of the 77 yes votes were cast by Democrats and 70 of the 73 no votes were cast by Republicans.

With that pattern in mind, plausible new NPVIC members are states with unified Democratic governments. Presently, Oregon, with 7 electoral votes, is the only such state not already in the NPVIC. In its off-cycle 2017 elections, Virginia, with 13 electoral votes, swung strongly to the Democratic party, but Republicans still control the state Legislature, barely.

If the only way to circumvent the Electoral College is for Democrats to control governorships and both chambers of more state legislatures, some plausible targets for the 2018 cycle include the Colorado senate and New Mexico governorship (Republican incumbent Susana Martinez is term-limited).

But it seems unlikely that states with another 98 electoral votes could join unless: (a) the 2018 midterm elections see an unprecedentedly massive Democratic tsunami, giving them new, firm control of multiple large states like Michigan and Pennsylvania; and/or (b) proponents can sell Republican legislators on the merits of national-plurality elections.

We expect Democrats to do very well in November, but not to take complete control of enough states to put NPVIC over the top on their own. And after more than a decade of lobbying, the plan's fans seem to have won very few Republican minds.

So, for better or worse, the rules for picking the American president probably won't be any different in 2020 or even 2024.

Jillian Evans is a doctoral candidate in political science and Brian J. Gaines is a professor at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, both at the University of Illinois.