In the past two decades, Republican candidates for president have won more votes than their Democratic opponent just once, in 2004, when George W. Bush defeated John F. Kerry. In that same time frame, Republicans have twice lost the popular vote but won the White House. In the 2020 election, that same undemocratic outcome nearly happened again. If Donald Trump had won 50,000 more votes distributed across Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin, he would have been reelected despite receiving 7 million fewer votes than Biden.

It isn’t hard to see, then, why many Democrats want to jettison the electoral college. But it turns out that some of the key figures working hardest to shift the United States to electing presidents by the popular vote aren’t Democrats — they are Republicans. Some are even diehard pro-Trump Republicans, working to undermine the very system that allowed Trump to become president despite getting clobbered by Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes.

Why on earth would any Republican want to move to a system that, had it been in place, would have kept their party out of the White House from 1993 to 2005, and again from 2009 to 2025?

To find out, a few years ago, I attended an event in Florida organized by advocates for the nonpartisan National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The idea is elegant. Rather than working for a constitutional amendment (which would never pass), the compact aims at undercutting the electoral college rather than eliminating it.

States that adopt the national popular vote pledge to allocate their electoral college votes not to the candidate who wins the most votes in their state (as is currently done), but rather to the candidate who wins the most votes nationally. Crucially, the compact takes effect only if enough states adopt it. It kicks in only after states that represent at least 270 electoral college votes — the number needed to win the presidency — pass it. Once that threshold is reached, the electoral college would still formally exist, but the popular-vote winner would always be elected president.

Currently, states representing 196 electoral votes have adopted the compact. If states worth an additional 74 electoral votes sign on, it will take effect. The arcane, anti-democratic electoral college will functionally not matter.

At the event in Florida, the organizers explained the virtues of their proposal (and there are many). But I was surprised that the pitch was being made by lifelong Republicans. One was “never-Trumper” Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Another was Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, who criticized Trump in 2016 but has softened his stance since and has repeatedly praised him. And finally, there was Patrick Rosenstiel, the chief executive of a political strategy firm who previously led field operations to help get John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. confirmed to the Supreme Court. This wasn’t exactly Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) crowd.

I recently got back in touch with Rosenstiel after the dust settled from the 2020 election to ask him why he, a conservative Republican, favored jettisoning a system that continues to systematically advantage Republican candidates.

“I think Republicans and Republican ideas win whenever we campaign directly to voters,” Rosenstiel explains. “And I believe national popular vote will force the Republican candidate for president to campaign in all 50 states. Plain and simple, Republican ideas win, and I’m not afraid of our ideas.”

More specifically, though, Rosenstiel points to the fact that the electoral college battleground map means most of the country gets ignored. “Ninety-six percent of the 2020 presidential campaign occurred in just 12 battleground states,” he says. “President Trump won the popular vote in those battleground states in 2020 and 2016.” The same dynamic held in 2016, when 94 percent of campaign events were held in just 12 states. Two-thirds of 2016 campaign events were held in just six states. Thirty-eight states were effectively ignored by both candidates.

These startling facts refute the main objection that many Republicans usually raise to the national popular vote: that small red states will no longer matter in presidential politics. The truth, Rosenstiel argues, is that small red states (and small blue states) already don’t matter. They’re simply taken for granted by candidates in both parties. “When is the last time you’ve seen a general election campaign event in North Dakota or Montana or Vermont or Delaware?” Rosenstiel asks.

Some Republicans I’ve spoken to also argue that the electoral college causes Republican presidential candidates to pursue campaign strategies that give them a narrow path to the White House but ensure the party remains unpopular nationally. They argue it’s a losing strategy over the long term, and the GOP’s survival requires a course correction toward national popularity — not just popularity in a few crucial battleground states. In their view, the Republican Party would be healthier if GOP presidential candidates couldn’t write off big states such as California or New York and needed to once again compete for votes in cities.

American democracy requires serious reforms. But many of those necessary reforms are dead on arrival in Congress, because only Democrats support them. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact can be different. All it takes is some brave Republican state legislators who, like Rosenstiel, recognize that removing the distortions of the electoral college isn’t good for Democrats; it’s good for democracy.

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