Explainer: What is the National Popular Vote Compact? And What Would it Do for Michigan?

n five presidential elections, the candidate who won the popular vote still ended up losing the presidency because of the way electoral votes are tallied during presidential elections.

By Kyle Kaminski

July 6, 2023

Michigan lawmakers are pursuing legislation that would ensure the presidential candidate with the most votes gets elected. Only a few more states need to get on board to make the plan work.

MICHIGAN—Bills that aim to fundamentally change the way the president of the United States gets elected every four years are making their way through the Michigan Legislature. And if more states decide to follow suit, big changes could be in store for presidential elections.

Here’s the deal:

The Election Committee of the Michigan House of Representatives is currently considering a bill (HB 4145) which would enter Michigan into a formal agreement with 17 other states and the District of Columbia to change the way presidential votes are tallied on election day. Similar state legislation (SB 126) is also under review in the Senate Election and Ethics Committee.

The agreement is known as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

What is the National Popular Vote Compact?

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is a deal between states that would ensure that the presidential candidate who wins the nationwide popular vote is always elected president.

Isn’t that how it usually works?

Mostly—but not always. In five presidential elections, the candidate who won the popular vote still ended up losing the presidency because of the way electoral votes are tallied during presidential elections. The most recent examples: Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

How does the system work in Michigan?

The Electoral College since 1964 has had 538 electors who are responsible for electing the president and vice president, proportionate to the number of federal lawmakers in each state. 

Michigan (and 47 other states) operates under a winner-takes-all system where the presidential candidate with the most votes in the state is always assigned all of the state’s electoral votes—regardless of how tight the margins might be when the results are finalized.

Michigan currently has 15 electoral votes. At least 270 are needed to win the presidency.

What’s the problem?

Most of the time, the system plays out as one might expect in a functioning democracy: The candidate who earns the most votes also earns the most electoral college votes, and therefore a four-year term in the Oval Office. But sometimes—like in 2000 and 2016—there are kinks. 

Since every state has at least two senators regardless of population, the Electoral College, by design, has allowed some US states with smaller populations to wield a drastically disproportionate weight in presidential elections compared to states with far more voters.

Research shows that one vote in California, for example, wields the same political power as about 3.2 votes in Wyoming despite Califonia having about 67 times the population of Wyoming

The system—originally created to preserve the political power of southern states with large populations of non-voting enslaved people—has faced rising criticism in recent years, especially after Clinton beat Donald Trump by nearly 3 million votes in 2016 and still lost the presidency.

The smaller states with a disproportionate say in presidential elections also tend to be whiter. 

What could change?

The bills working their way through the Michigan legislature are essentially identical to those that have already been passed by 16 other states—and they all aim to achieve the same thing: ensure the most popular candidate always gets enough electoral votes to win the presidency.

If the bills are passed and signed into law, Michigan would essentially agree to allocate its 15 Electoral College votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the nationwide—rather than just the statewide—popular vote. And if enough other states pass similar legislation, the presidential candidate with the highest national vote total will always be president.

Proponents said the change would allow candidates to better focus their campaigns on the needs of the whole country, rather than pandering to key swing states. It may also encourage higher voter turnout because individual votes would more directly impact the election results.

When would the changes take effect?

Possibly 2024—but more likely by 2028. It depends on a few different factors. 

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact will only kick into effect if enough states join to reach the 270 electoral vote threshold needed to clinch the presidency. So far, 16 states and Washington D.C. have joined the compact—representing a total of 205 electoral votes. 

If Michigan joins, that would bring the total to 220, meaning that additional states totaling at least 50 electoral votes would need to join the compact to seal the deal. As of last month, the bills had passed at least one chamber in an additional eight other states, for 78 more potential votes.

But most of the states controlled by Democrats are already on board with the compact. And Republican lawmakers who have gamed the system to elect their preferred presidential candidates have been reluctant to support any changes. Without a significant shift in party control among the states, the chances of hitting the 270-vote threshold by 2024 is low. 

READ MORE: Michigan Lawmakers to Turn Election Day into Election Week

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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