The National Popular Vote effort, explained

The National Popular Vote effort is now halfway to its goal of electing future presidents via the popular vote, after Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (D) made his state the latest to sign on.

The years-old effort is slowly making its way through state legislatures in hopes of changing the way United States presidents are elected -- without overcoming the huge hurdle of passing a constitutional amendment getting rid of the Electoral College.

But precisely what is the National Popular Vote effort? And how close are we to electing a future president by the number of votes cast rather than by the number of electoral votes won?

Here's a quick explainer:

What is the National Popular Vote?

National Popular Vote is a campaign launched in the mid-2000s. It basically seeks to get states that comprise a majority of the 538 votes in the Electoral College -- 270, to be precise -- to agree to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

These states are not required to allot their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner until the effort has garnered the number of states it needs to get to 270 electoral votes.

So in other words, Rhode Island can continue to award its electoral votes to the winner of its state -- rather than the nation -- until the effort reaches 270 electoral votes. Once that threshold is met, it would be required, along with the other states that have joined the effort, to award its votes to the national popular vote winner.

Those states would effectively determine who wins the election, and their votes would be based on the national popular vote.

Why are they doing it this way?

Basically, it's supremely difficult to overturn the Electoral College, because it's in the Constitution.

In order to get rid of that method of electing a president, two-thirds of both the House and Senate would need to vote to repeal it via a Constitutional amendment, and then three-fourths of state legislatures would need to ratify the amendment. Achieving such a change is intentionally very difficult.

"There's literally nothing else on the table that has the remotest chance of fixing it and passing," said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, an electoral reform group that favors the National Popular Vote effort.

What the National Popular Vote effort does is effectively reduce the number of states that need to agree to the change; the measure only needs to pass in enough state legislatures and get signed by their governors to get to 270. And, of course, Congress plays no role.

While the Electoral College would technically still be in effect, the agreement among the states to award their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner would effectively render it moot.

How many states have signed on?

Rhode Island's decision to join the effort means it now has nine states and the District of Columbia, comprising 136 of the 270 electoral votes it needs to succeed -- a little more than half.

  • District of Columbia – 3 electoral votes
  • Hawaii – 4 electoral votes
  • Illinois – 20 electoral votes
  • Maryland – 10 electoral votes
  • Massachusetts – 11 electoral votes
  • New Jersey – 14 electoral votes
  • Washington – 12 electoral votes
  • Vermont – 3 electoral votes
  • California – 55 electoral votes
  • Rhode Island – 4 electoral votes

You'll notice that every state above is a blue state.

How many states are needed?

Just how many states are needed to get to 270 votes depends on which states are involved and how many electoral votes they have. The way things look right now, it would need about 20-25 states.

California (55 votes) is the biggest state in the country to sign on -- and the biggest overall -- with the next biggest state being Illinois (20 votes).

The measure also recently passed in the New York general assembly, and it passed easily in previous sessions of the state Senate. So far, it's not clear that the state Senate will pass it again, but if it did and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed it, that would mean another 29 electoral votes.

What are its prospects?

The effort still has a long way to go, and Rhode Island was the first state in the last two years to sign off on it, so it's not as if the effort is rife with momentum.

If supporters want to succeed, they'll likely have to branch out into red states, because there are only so many blue states (and so many electoral votes in them) on the map. And passing this legislation in swing states would be very difficult, for reasons to be discussed below.

Do people like the popular vote?

In a word, yes. Polling regularly shows Americans prefer electing the president via popular vote rather than via Electoral College. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in October showed 56 percent preferred the popular vote approach, while 37 percent preferred the Electoral College.

(For an interesting history of how this issue polls, see this piece from our great pollster Jon Cohen.)

In addition, supporters of the effort note that it makes every state -- the majority of which are generally ignored because they aren't swing states -- relevant in the process. So if you're from a clearly red or clearly blue state, this method has appeal.

What are the arguments against it?

Well, for one, the framers of the Constitution constructed the Electoral College for a reason -- they were wary of presidents being elected by popular vote.

In addition, some states might balk at the idea that they have to award their votes to a candidate that may have lost their state, even by a very large margin.

Finally, if you're in a swing state, you probably don't like this, because it makes your vote much less significant. (On the flip side, of course, it would mean you would no longer be bombarded with campaign ads and phone calls.)

Would National Popular Vote actually change anything?

Ever heard of President Samuel Tilden? Of course you haven't. That's because we have the Electoral College.

Tilden in 1876 would have beaten Rutherford B. Hayes if the election were determined by popular vote.

Hayes is one of four presidents to win without carrying the popular vote. The others are John Quincy Adams (1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote), Benjamin Harrison (1888, Grover Cleveland), and of course George W. Bush (2000, Al Gore).

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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