Explaining the National Popular Vote


In what game or country does the winner with the highest score or most votes not win?  Ours!  What if you held a baseball game, and instead of the one with the most points winning, the umpires got together and voted for the winner?  Would the crowd be happy with that outcome? I don’t think so. But that is basically how our current electoral college works. To this point, many states have passed legislation in agreement for a National Popular vote pact and more states are needed for it to go into practice. Many people don’t seem to understand what the NPV is or even what the electoral college is and how it came to be.

So first let’s explore our current election system (see my former blog on the Electoral College too). Currently the Electoral College is the final vote and determinant of the outcome of our Presidential Elections. In four elections in our U.S. history, two since 2000, the person who received the most votes did not win the election.  I feel like that discredits our votes, that every vote should be equal and that the person who receives the most votes, as in most every other contest, should win. We are the only country who has this wonky system!

How does the electoral college work?

Who or what is the Electoral College?  The college is composed of people from each state (currently total of 538 with 270 being the winning number) and the Constitution leaves the decision about how the electoral votes are cast to individual states.   Each state gets 1 elector for Senate, and then the same number to match their Representatives (so minimum per state is 3).  Some states give all their electoral votes to the person with the most   votes, and a couple of states divide them up.  In Article II, section 1, clauses 1 and 2. “Each state shall appoint, in such a 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, but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an Office of Trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed as Elector.”  The Constitution does not address whether voters have any direct voice in electing these ‘electors’ and whether the votes for President should be counted as winner take all by each state. Furthermore, states decide how their electoral votes will be allocated. Does that whole process sound very democratic?



Historically, it was developed when we had fewer states and were much less populated.  There were some larger cities and many rural areas, especially in the South.  The south wanted slaves to be counted so that they would have more representatives/electoral votes. Slaves accounted for about 40% of the population, even though they couldn’t vote.  Northerners didn’t think they should be represented since they couldn’t vote.  This debate was resolved by the “three-fifth compromise”, which meant that each black person would only count as 3/5 a person in representation by population.  This was important in determining how many electoral votes each state received since representatives comprise a portion of that number.



The founders weren’t really sure how the electoral college would work.  The first snafu happened back in 1800 when there was an electoral tie between Jefferson and Burr.  The election was tossed to the House of Representatives, and from that debacle the 12th Amendment resulted mandating that state electors specify and decide the President and VP.

That still didn’t solve the problem where the person with the most votes didn’t win the electoral votes.  Indeed, the next test came in 1824 when Andrew Jackson and three others were in the Presidential race.  Jackson received the most electoral votes (99 at that time) and held a small lead (38,149 votes) in the popular vote, but no candidate received the majority required in the Electoral College, and the House of Representatives had to make a decision again.  Since then, four more elections have resulted with a candidate winning the Electoral College votes but losing the popular vote (1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016). The debate continues on how this can be a representative democracy.


Pitfalls of the current Electoral System

  1. Voters are basically disenfranchised in Presidential Elections in 4/5’s of our States.  Most candidates choose not to even campaign in states where they could win few electoral votes.  About 2/3 of the states were ignored between 1988 and 2008 and 4/5’s in 2012. Is it right to concentrate on just a handful of states to win an election, and forget the rest of the country?
  2. The person elected to President is not elected by having the most votes.  As stated before, this has happened in 4 of 56 elections, including 2 since 2000 which seems to be on the uptick.
  3. Every vote is NOT equal. Voter turnout in the nine battleground states was 67%, but is often less in states where they don’t seem to matter as much. That means 4 out of 5 Americans votes don’t really matter.
  4. Currently as few as 11 states and their electoral votes can determine the outcome of the election! How is that fair to the other 39? 15 were critical in the 2016 election.
  5. Electors in states sometimes vote against their state’s chosen candidate and are referred to as “faithless electors”. Starting in 1796, there have been 157 such faithless electors.  Some states now require a pledge by electors to uphold their state’s choice, but still 21 states do not require that promise.  That seems unfair that a handful of people in your state could go against the popular vote and makes your vote feel discounted.
  6. Each state receives a minimum of 3 electoral votes, so states with larger populations don’t get as many votes as they should. For example, Wyoming gets 3 with a meager population of about ½ a million, and Colorado gets 9, yet Colorado is five times larger and doesn’t get 15 votes. We are not fairly represented with the current system.



As with Constitutional amendments, Congress would have to propose an amendment, which would have to be ratified by either ¾ of state legislators (currently 38) or by state ratifying conventions in ¾ of the states.   Even though the top vote getter has not been elected in four of 56 elections, that is still a pretty large percentage.  Times have changed, population has grown and it seems to be an antiquated way of electing our President.  Because it takes so much to abolish the electoral college, another idea was formed to remedy the problems aforementioned.

What is the National Popular Vote Interstate Pact?

This is an agreement between the District of Columbia and a group of States who would award all of the electoral votes to the candidate who wins the overall popular vote in all 50 states and DC.  This agreement has been passed in about a dozen states, and needs to go through the process in more states to get to the same 270 electoral vote margins to be approved and put in effect. It seems like a more equitable solution and those campaigning would need to travel to all states to get their votes. It still preserves the Electoral College and the intent of the Constitution, but lets citizens elect the President who earns the most votes.  It has my support!  has this changed your mind?


Resources: https://www.history.com/news/the-history-of-the-electoral-college-debate.

And Every Vote Equal, 4th Edition




  1. Thanks, Sandy! Great article.

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