The National Popular Vote Plan

A Modification to the Electoral College

Voter entering voting booth
New Hampshire Voters Go To Polls In Nation's First Primary. Win McNamee / Getty Images

The Electoral College system - the way we really elect our president - has always had its detractors and lost even more public support after the 2016 election, when it became apparent that President-Elect Donald Trump might have lost the nationwide popular vote to Sec. Hillary Clinton, but won the electoral vote to become the 45th ​President of the United States. Now, the states are considering the National Popular Vote plan, a system that, while not doing away with the Electoral College system, would modify it to ensure that the candidate winning the national popular vote is ultimately elected president.

What is the National Popular Vote Plan?

The National Popular Vote plan is a bill passed by participating state legislatures agreeing that they will cast all of their electoral votes for the presidential candidate winning the nationwide popular vote. If enacted by enough states, the National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

How the National Popular Vote Plan Would Work

To take effect, the National Popular Vote bill must be enacted by the state legislatures of states controlling a total of 270 electoral votes - a majority of the overall 538 electoral votes and the number currently required to elect a president. Once enacted, the participating states would cast all of their electoral votes for the presidential candidate winning the nationwide popular vote, thus ensuring that candidate the required 270 electoral votes.

(See: Electoral Votes by State)

The National Popular Vote plan would eliminate what critics of the Electoral College system point to as the "winner-take-all" rule - the awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in that state. Currently, 48 of the 50 states follow the winner-take-all rule.

Only Nebraska and Maine do not. Because of the winner-take-all rule, a candidate can be elected president without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in 4 of the nation's 56 presidential elections, most recently in 2000.

The National Popular Vote plan does not do away with the Electoral College system, an action that would require a constitutional amendment. Instead, it modifies the winner-take-all rule in a way its supporters say would assure that every vote will matter in every state in every presidential election.

Is the National Popular Vote Plan Constitutional?

Like most issues involving politics, the U.S. Constitution is largely silent on the political issues of presidential elections. This was the intent of the Founding Fathers. The Constitution specifically leaves details like how the electoral votes are cast up to the states. According to Article II, Section 1, "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress." As a result, an agreement between a group of states to cast all of their electoral votes in a similar manner, as proposed by the National Popular Vote plan passes constitutional muster.

The winner-take-all rule is not required by the Constitution and was actually used by only three states in the nation's first presidential election in 1789. Today, the fact that Nebraska and Maine do not use the winner-take-all system serves as proof that modifying the Electoral College system, as proposed by the National Popular Vote plan is constitutional and does not require a constitutional amendment.

Where the National Popular Vote Plan Stands

Currently, the National Popular Vote bill has been passed in a total of 35 state legislative chambers in 23 states. It has been fully enacted into law in 11 states controlling 165 electoral votes: CA, DC, HI, IL, MA, MD, NJ, NY, RI, VT, and WA. The National Popular Vote bill will take effect when enacted into law by states possessing 270 electoral votes — a majority of the current 538 electoral votes.

As a result, the bill will take effect when enacted by states possessing an additional 105 electoral votes.

To date, the bill has passed at least one legislative chamber in 10 states possessing 82 electoral votes: AR, AZ, CT, DE, ME, MI, NC, NV, OK, and OR. In The bill has been passed by both legislative chambers — but not in the same year — by the states of Colorado and New Mexico, controlling a combined 14 electoral votes. In addition, the bill has been unanimously approved at the committee level in the states of Georgia and Missouri, controlling a combined 27 electoral votes. Over the years, the National Popular Vote bill has been introduced in the legislatures of all 50 states.

Prospects for Enactment

After the 2016 presidential election, political science expert Nate Silver wrote that, since the swing states are not likely to support any plan that might reduce their influence over control of the White House, the National Popular Vote bill will not succeed unless the predominately Republican “red states” adopt it. As of September 2017, the bill has been fully adopted only by predominately Democratic “blue states” which delivered the 14 largest vote shares for Barack Obama in the 2012 Presidential Election. 

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Longley, Robert. "The National Popular Vote Plan." ThoughtCo, Nov. 4, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-national-popular-vote-plan-3322047. Longley, Robert. (2017, November 4). The National Popular Vote Plan. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-national-popular-vote-plan-3322047 Longley, Robert. "The National Popular Vote Plan." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-national-popular-vote-plan-3322047 (accessed December 15, 2017).