National Popular Vote Compact

At one point in my past I thought I had my future all figured out: I was going to study electoral law, write amazing, insightful things about it, and become an adviser to powerful people. Things didn’t turn out that way, in part because the study of electoral law is incredibly boring, in part because of two tiny experiences I had working on local-level political campaigns, and in part because I became interested in substance control policy along the way and ended up focusing on that instead. And probably also in part because life is just like that.

Nonetheless, I still find electoral law interesting enough to pay attention to it from a distance, and I happen to live in the first US state — Maryland — to commit itself to reforming the fundamental structure of US presidential elections. All of which means that I’ve been paying attention to the National Popular Vote Compact for a while.

The Compact directs a state’s electors to cast their votes for the winner of the national popular vote — rather than for the winner of the state’s popular vote. The constitution leaves it up to the states to decide how to apportion their electoral college votes, so there isn’t a constitutional basis for a challenge to NPV. The Compact will not go into effect until sufficient states have passed it to control 270 votes in the electoral college, giving them enough leverage to ensure that the popular vote winner becomes the president. It’s an elegant way around an outdated voting scheme*.

At least 47 states will be considering the compact this year, and it seems to have a great deal of support in populous states (which I assume means they are tired of getting trounced by small states in the electoral college), making it not unlikely that it could be in place for the 2012 election. New Jersey’s governor just signed the compact into law, and the legislatures of Hawaii, California and Illinois have passed it. There is obviously a long way to go, but I think this is an exciting idea — I’ll certainly be watching it develop.
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*I don’t want to go into great detail here, but most current and past electoral schemes have needed some way of “coarsening” the vote to avoid chaos, and historically, the electoral college served this function very well in the US. The need for coarsening is most obvious in proportional representation systems, where if every party that received votes got seats, legislating would not be possible because the minorities really would rule. But even first-past-the-post (FPTP) systems need coarsening to make them efficient, at least until our voting technology stabilizes in a more reliable, verifiable way. But what about the future? In a world of perfect voting technology, would coarsening be necessary in FPTP systems? That’s a fascinating question.

Posted on January 15th, 2008 by Katxena