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Why a Plan to Circumvent the Electoral College Is Probably Doomed

New York this week became the 10th state (plus D.C.) to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The compact represents a clever workaround to the Electoral College. By signing on, states agree they will award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote (for example, New York would have given its electoral votes to George W. Bush in 2004). However, the measure will only be triggered once states accounting for a majority of electoral votes have joined.

There are 538 electoral votes (hence the name of this website), so a majority is 270. The compact’s signatories, so far, total 165 electoral votes. That represents a lot of progress since Maryland, with its 10 electoral votes, became the first state to join the compact in 2007.

Here’s the problem: All the states to have joined so far are very blue. Until some purple states and red states sign on, the compact has little in the way of territory to conquer.

As the chart below indicates, the relationship between whether a state has joined the compact and how it voted in 2012 is nearly 1-to-1. The seven states where President Obama won by the widest margins, along with D.C., have joined. So have three others — New Jersey, Illinois and Washington — where Obama won by at least 15 percentage points. But none below that threshold have done so.


Perhaps the compact can get Delaware, Connecticut and Maine to join, where Obama also won by 15 percentage points or more. But they account for only 14 total electoral votes (and Maine already has a unique way of apportioning electoral votes). Oregon and New Mexico also re-elected Obama by double-digit margins — and those two states have become increasingly off-limits to Republican presidential candidates — but have just 12 electoral votes between them.

After that, you get into states such as Michigan and Minnesota, which are blue-leaning but that receive plenty of attention from presidential campaigns. Their votes might not be quite as influential in the Electoral College as the campaigns presume — a Democrat who lost Minnesota would probably be in too much trouble elsewhere to cobble together a 270-vote majority. Still, they receive an influx of media dollars and political pandering every four years, and probably have little incentive to bite the hand that feeds them.

Soon after comes outright swing states, such as Ohio, New Hampshire and Colorado. These states, along with Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, collectively had a 98.6 percent chance of determining the Electoral College winner in 2012, according to the FiveThirtyEight tipping-point index as it was calculated on election morning. In other words, these nine states are 70 times more powerful than the other 41 (which collectively had a 1.4 percent chance of determining the winner) combined. That’s part of the reason so many Americans object to the Electoral College. But states whose voters have a disproportionate amount of influence may be in no mood to give it up.

Finally, there are the solidly red states, from Georgia to Utah; all the solidly red states together have 191 electoral votes. To advance further, the compact will need to collect some signatories from this group.

In theory, states that want a Republican in the White House might have a lot of incentive to join the compact. That’s because in the 2008 and 2012 elections, the Electoral College worked to Democrats’ benefit. States closest to the tipping point, such as Colorado, voted for Obama by a slightly wider margin than the nation as a whole. That implies that if there had been a uniform swing against Obama and he lost the national popular vote, he could have still won the Electoral College by eking out a victory in these states.

Could the red states come around? Perhaps. Despite Democrats’ painful memories of Al Gore’s Electoral College loss in 2000, Republican voters are nearly as likely to support ending the Electoral College (61 percent of them would vote to do away with it as compared to 66 percent of Democrats, according to a Gallup poll last year). But Republican legislators in those states evidently feel differently, or perhaps have calculated that the Democrats’ Electoral College advantage in 2008 and 2012 was an anomaly that will soon fade.

If Utah, Texas and similar states do begin signing onto the compact, what signal might that send to the blue states? Might legislators in Vermont and Maryland suddenly decide they agree with Alexander Hamilton’s position on the Electoral College after all?

My personal view is that the Electoral College should be abolished (even if that means we’d have to change the name of this website). But based on the signatories to the compact, blue and red states seem to think of it as a zero-sum game. And the purple states, which might otherwise swing the balance, have the least incentive of all to sign on.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.