California Pledges Its 55 Electoral Votes to the Winner of the National Popular Vote as Part of Interstate Compact

A movement to replace the Electoral College with a national popular vote in determining presidential elections has reached the halfway point.  Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill (AB 459) that ratified the state’s inclusion in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), which seeks to replace the current Electoral College with rules that would guarantee the election of the winner of the national popular vote.

Under the legislation, California would award all of its 55 Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote.  It only goes into effect if it is approved by states with a total of 270 electoral votes, the minimum needed to elect a president.

With the passage in California, similar legislation has now been enacted by eight states (California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia. These jurisdictions represent 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 required to activate it.

According to the National Popular Vote, the organization spearheading the interstate compact, the bill has now passed 31 legislative chambers in 21 jurisdictions (AR, CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, HI, IL, ME, MD, MA, MI, NV, NJ, NM, NY, NC, OR, RI, VT, WA), and has been endorsed by 2,124 state legislators.

The compact is based on Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives each state legislature the right to decide how to appoint its own electors.  Currently, 48 states have a winner-take-all system in which all of the state’s electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the majority of votes in the state.  (Maine and Nebraska use an alternative method of distributing their electoral votes – the so-called Congressional District Method.)

States that join the compact will continue to award their electoral votes based on the current system until the compact has enough states to represent a controlling majority of the Electoral College (270 electoral votes).  After that point, all of the member states’ electoral votes would be cast for the winner of the national popular vote.  Consequently, the national popular vote winner would almost certainly have a decisive majority in the Electoral College, winning the presidency.

Supporters of the bill in California said passage would make the state more relevant in presidential politics.   Because the state is heavily Democratic, presidential candidates often choose not to campaign there, focusing instead of states where the vote is more competitive.

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, sponsor of the bill, said, “For too long, presidential candidates have ignored California and our issues while pandering exclusively to the battleground states.”

Vikram David Amar, an associate dean at the University of California Davis School of Law, helped to start the national popular vote movement more than a decade ago.  He told the San Francisco Chronicle that “it's about voter equality. If you don't have a national popular vote, people in some states have more say than people in other states.”  He added that swing states currently get "all the campaign promises and attention, and their votes are effectively worth more."  Large states such as New York, California, and Texas are largely ignored in presidential contests.

Supporters of the Electoral College argue that it protects small and rural states, whose voters could be ignored if the country moves to a national popular vote system in which candidates target states with large populations and urban areas. 

Theoretically, this should be a non-partisan issue.  In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College.  In 2004, George Bush won three million more votes that John Kerry, but if just 60,000 votes had switched toward Kerry in Ohio, the Democrat would have won the election.

However, all of the nine jurisdictions that have joined the compact are so-called “blue states” that lean heavily Democratic.  Amar hopes that red states will also see the compact as in their interest.  He told the San Francisco Chronicle that “because the outcome in Texas is already known, they are ignored just as much as New York and California, so hopefully some big red states understand this is to their advantage to do, too. If a red state doesn't join it soon, I worry people will misunderstand this as a pro-Democrat, anti-Republican thing when it's not that at all."