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No Electoral College in 2012?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on an ongoing initiative to remove the influence of the Electoral College. The initiative, called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, seeks to encourage state legislatures to pass laws requiring that their electors be allocated based on the nationwide popular vote, provided that a sufficient number of other states do the same. If states totaling at least 270 electoral votes (an outright majority of the total available) sign the Compact, it would become active, and this would theoretically guarantee (provided there were no unfaithful electors) that the winner of the popular vote would also win the Electoral College.

The initiative has been passed by four states totaling 50 electoral votes. In five other states totaling 36 electoral votes, there is “live” legislation that has been passed by one of the two state houses but not yet by the other. Finally, there is another tier of seven states, consisting of 112 electoral votes, that have had at least one chamber of their state houses pass the Compact at some point in the past, but not in the current legislative session:

Tier 1: Signed into law (50 electoral votes)
Illinois (21)
New Jersey (15)
Maryland (10)
Hawaii (4)

Tier 2: Passed by one house, currently pending before other house (36 electoral votes)
Washington (11)
Colorado (9)
Oregon (7)
Arkansas (6)
Vermont (3)

Tier 3: Passed by at least one house in past (112 electoral votes)
California (55, vetoed by governor)
Michigan (17, not voted on by senate)
North Carolina (15, not voted on by house)
Massachusetts (12, not sent to governor)
New Mexico (5, not voted on by senate)
Maine (4, not voted on by house)
Rhode Island (4, vetoed by governor)

What’s interesting about the list of states is that have taken some action on the Compact is how blue they are. Red states have been very reluctant to move on the bill; concomitantly, the bill has been vetoed by Republican governors in certain blue states like California and Rhode Island. People, obviously, are going to remember 2000 for a very long time, in which Al Gore was screwed by the Electoral College. But throughout most of 2008, our simulations showed that the Democrats, not the Republicans, had a structural advantage in the Electoral College, something which was also apparent in 2004 when John Kerry nearly won the Electoral College in spite of trailing in the national popular vote by 2.5 points.

There are presently a couple of particularly interesting tests for the Compact, including purple Colorado, where the state house has passed the bill and the state senate is deciding whether to do the same, and red Arkansas, which is in a parallel situation.

For reasons that should be apparent, I’m going to take the fifth on whether I think the Compact is a good idea. But its chances of success, at least in the near-term, appear to me to be relatively slim. The idea of the Compact has been around since 2001, but the states that have had even one of their houses approve the bill at any point in time total 198 electoral votes, a fair bit shy of the 270 threshold. In addition, the Compact, if it gained a toehold, would almost certainly become the subject of a Constitutional challenge (.pdf).

What would it take for there to be a real chance of abolishing (or end-arounding, as the Compact seeks to do) the Electoral College? I think it would take two elections in relatively rapid succession in which there’s a popular:electoral split, particularly if these two elections are won by candidates of opposite parties. The memories of 2000 should linger for a few more cycles, and so if there’s another such occurrence before, say, 2020 or 2024, things could get very interesting.

Until and unless that occurs, however, my guess is that at least one of the two parties will see the Electoral College as being advantageous to them at any given time, as will most or all of the swing states. This will make it difficult for the Compact to garner a majority.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.