Electoral College: Will the Popular Vote Plan Win a Majority?

The Wall Street Journal has an update on one of my favorite subjects: The ingenious and/or devious (depending on your perspective) plot by states ...
by | March 31, 2009

The Wall Street Journal has an update on one of my favorite subjects: The ingenious and/or devious (depending on your perspective) plot by states to replace the Electoral College with the popular vote in presidential elections, without even asking the permission of that pesky federal government. The Journal makes a good point about the importance of Colorado in the push to 270 electoral votes (which is what is needed for the interstate compact to go into effect):

The debate hits full stride now in Colorado, a state that political analysts say presents a key test for the National Popular Vote project. So far, the states most receptive to doing away with the Electoral College have all been solidly Democratic -- not the swing states that have been high-profile players in presidential elections.

But Colorado last year joined a small cluster of newly minted swing states that drew a disproportionate share of candidate visits and campaign spending. It will now help answer the question of whether swing states will take the leap.

If each state simply were pursuing its own self-interest, the swing states would support the Electoral College, since it gives them disproportionate influence. The non-swing states would favor the National Popular Vote plan.

In practice, though, there's been another relevant variable. Democrats, for whatever reason, are more likely to support the popular vote than Republicans. In fact, the partisan makeup of a legislative chamber has had more of an influence on whether it approves the popular vote plan than the competitiveness (swinginess?) of the state.

Knowing all that, it's easy to group states based on their likelihood of approving the popular vote plan. That's what I'm about to do. This is largely an update of a post I wrote a year ago.

Four states that have already approved the compact, all of which are controlled by Democrats:

State          Electoral Vote

Hawaii              4

Illinois              21

Maryland         10

New Jersey      15

Total               50

Next up, we have a lot of states that are logical places for the compact to win approval. These are states where Democrats control the state legislature and which aren't presidential swing states. Some of them have Republican governors, but veto overrides don't appear impossible.

I say "logical" and not "likely" because there could be state-specific political dynamics that make passage unlikely -- anything from a key legislative leader who doesn't like the concept to a state constitutional provision that makes approval more complicated. Still, many of the legislative chambers that have approved the plan are in states on this list:

State               Electoral Votes

Arkansas              6

California              55

Connecticut          7

D.C.                     3

Delaware              3

Maine                   4

Massachusetts     12

New York             31

Oregon                 7

Rhode Island         4

Vermont                3

Washington          11

West Virginia         5

Total                    151

These first two groups combine for 201 electoral votes, 69 short of what the compact needs to go into effect. That's why states such as Colorado are crucial. With Republicans generally against the plan, swing states with Democrats in charge are the most likely route for the compact to approach 270.

All of these states have Democratic governors and Democratic legislatures, except for Minnesota (with Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty), where Democrats are close to having a veto-proof majority. Here they are:

State                 Electoral Votes

Colorado                 9

Iowa                       7

Minnesota              10

New Hampshire       4

New Mexico            5

North Carolina        15

Wisconsin              10

Total                     60

Even if every state in these first three groups got on board, the plan would still only have 261 electoral votes behind it -- tantalizingly close to victory, but not quite there. What could change the dynamic is if non-swing states where Republicans hold sway started backing the idea.

Texas, for example, could receive a whole lot of attention in presidential elections under a popular vote system. Right now, it gets none in the general election. So far, though, that hasn't persuaded Texas Republicans to back the concept. In fact, no legislative chamber controlled by Republicans has approved the compact yet.

Here are the non-swing states where Republicans have a significant measure of power:

State        Electoral Votes

Alabama            9

Alaska               3

Idaho                 4

Kansas              6

Kentucky           8

Louisiana           9

Mississippi         6

North Dakota      3

Oklahoma          7

South Carolina    8

South Dakota     3

Tennessee        11

Texas               34

Utah                  5

Wyoming           3

Total              119

Finally, the states that seem least likely to pass the plan are swing states where Republicans have at least some power over state government. However, it's worth noting that some of these states aren't too far from being completely controlled by the Democrats. If, say, Democrats won the Ohio Senate or the Pennsylvania Senate or the Nevada governorship, suddenly these states would warrant watching.

I was broad, by the way, in my definition of a swing state, including Arizona (since it probably will be competitive in 2012), Nebraska (since it splits its electoral votes), Michigan (where McCain's October pullout may have inflated Obama's margin) and Georgia (which still leans Republican, despite Obama's near miss). Here's this group:

State          Electoral Votes

Arizona            10

Florida              27

Georgia            15

Indiana             11

Michigan          17

Missouri           11

Montana           3

Nebraska          5

Nevada             5

Ohio                20

Pennsylvania    21

Virginia            13

Total              158

Add it all up and I agree with Nate Silver's analysis. The popular vote plan isn't likely to reach 270 electoral votes soon. Still, the idea has won more support than I might have thought when the campaign got started. And, more states are likely to enact the compact in the months and years ahead.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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