The National Popular Vote Bandwagon

The national popular vote bandwagon continues to attract anxious passengers before the 2020 election.  Fifteen states plus D.C. with 196 electoral votes have joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), which would obligate the participating states to cast their electoral votes for the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, not the candidate who wins the state's popular vote, but only after states with 270 or more electoral votes join the compact.  Most recently, Nevada's governor had the good sense to veto the measure.

The sudden and palpable distaste for the Electoral College appears to be motivated by the festering anger of two stinging electoral defeats for the Democrats in 2000 and 2016, not by a sincere desire to improve our great Republic in a bipartisan way.  The counterfactual proof of this claim is the insight that if George W. Bush and Donald Trump had won the national popular vote but had lost the Electoral College, the Democrats today undoubtedly would be singing the praises of the Electoral College as a necessary check on mob rule.

The movement conveniently glosses over the fact that the Electoral College merely reflects how states send representatives and senators to Washington.  Even small states with only one representative have two senators, but the movement is not proposing to abolish the Senate.  Our Republic was founded on semi-autonomous states that do most of the heavy lifting for day-to-day governance (police, schools, courts, roads, etc.) and therefore need a voice at the federal table to avoid having a few large states control all the small states.  As such, presidential elections should take into consideration the interests of individual citizens (438 electoral votes) and individual states (100 electoral votes).

The movement misses another critical point: the way the election game has been played as a matter of fact.  When Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 set out to win the presidency, their campaign strategies were designed to win the Electoral College — the road to 270 — not the national popular vote.  It is disingenuous to hail the virtues of the national popular vote after the fact.  When the news networks show election maps or conduct polls, their analysis and predictions are based on winning the Electoral College, not the national popular vote.

No one was surprised when Gore and Clinton did not waste precious time and resources campaigning in California or New York, where victory was certain.  Winning 50.01% or 99.99% of the popular vote for a state has the same result: 100% of the state's electoral votes.  Consider a World Series in which one team wins four games and the other team wins three games but has more overall runs during the seven games.  The additional runs might seem like a moral victory, but no one would argue that the team with the most overall runs during the seven games should be crowned champion.  If scoring the most runs were the objective, the strategy for playing individual games would change dramatically.

The movement would be wise to consider how election dynamics might change if they had their way, to include the near impossibility of conducting a national recount in the case of a close election.  Democrats would probably still win the popular vote in states like California and New York, and Republicans would probably still win the popular vote in states like Texas and Wyoming, but voters across the country would probably adjust their voting behavior, perhaps dramatically.  Voters who otherwise might not cast a ballot, such as Republicans in California and Democrats in Texas, might turn out in droves if the national popular vote redefined the rules of the game.  In this case, past behavior should not be considered an indicator of future behavior.

The movement would also be wise to focus on winning presidential elections under the current rules of the Constitution or risk stomaching an even more painful scenario in which Republicans win the White House based on national popular vote after the change but would have lost had the Electoral College rules been in effect.  We have no way of knowing precisely how such a rule change would alter voter dynamics, and the Democrats might find themselves in the awkward position of scrambling to return to the good old days of the Electoral College.  The Founding Fathers wisely made amending the Constitution difficult, by design, to promote a national consensus based on sound reasoning.

The national popular vote bandwagon will not succeed in amending the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College — the courts would be wise to strike down the NPVIC laws — but the movement will undoubtedly use this issue to trumpet the "one person, one vote" mantra to "start a dialogue" for other political ends.  The Texas secretary of state found evidence that 95,000 registered voters were not U.S. citizens, and Los Angeles County is in the process of purging over one million ineligible voters.  Prediction: As more states audit their voter rolls and purge more ineligible voters, you can count on the movement to decry "voter suppression" and demand that we "count every vote," eligible or not.

Anthony C. Patton studied mathematics and philosophy at Augsburg University and earned an MBA from Thunderbird — School of Global Management.