By Alice Malmberg
The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) proposes an alternative to how the United States currently elects its president by tying the outcome of the national popular vote to each state’s electoral vote for the presidency. First introduced in 2006 by a bipartisan coalition of political scientists and elected officials, lawmakers have enacted the NPVIC in 15 states and the District of Columbia, which comprise a total of 196 electoral votes. The Compact will take effect when the total number of electoral votes from its signatory states surpasses the 270 vote margin needed to determine the presidency. This allows the NPVIC to reform the Electoral College in a manner that both upholds our nation’s foundational concept of ‘one person, one vote’ and ensures that the outcome of presidential elections reflects the preferences of the majority of the voting electorate, rather than merely those in a handful of battleground states. Moreover, because it is incumbent upon state governments to ratify the NPVIC , the Compact preserves the integrity of states’ rights to regulate the franchise as they see fit. In this post, I call upon theories of voting behavior, as well as voter turnout data from recent presidential elections to explore how the NPVIC might affect presidential turnout in future years. Examining the NPVIC in relation with voting trends in presidential elections highlights the Compact’s potential as a method of increasing turnout in presidential election years.
Even in presidential elections, which tend to have the highest rates of participation, voter turnout has remained stagnant.
According to Arend Lijphart, “the United States ranks near the bottom of voting participation” compared to other industrialized democracies. Indeed, recent presidential elections have only seen slightly above 50% of eligible voters turn out to vote, ranging from a low of 54.2% in 2000 to a high of 61.6% in 2008, with 60.1% of the voting eligible population casting a ballot in the 2016 election. Scholars of voter turnout have long theorized that higher exposure to political information increases turnout rates and that voters with low levels of political information are less likely to participate than their better-informed counterparts.
The current electoral system incentivizes candidates to spend a disproportionate amount of time campaigning in a handful of swing states, at the expense of less time spent in “safe” Republican or Democratic states.
Considering this information, implementing the NPVIC should positively affect voter turnout. The current electoral system incentivizes candidates to spend a disproportionate amount of time campaigning in a handful of swing states, at the expense of less time spent in “safe” Republican or Democratic states. In 2016, 94% of the 399 general election campaign events were held in 12 states, and two-thirds were held in six key states: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Such a significant discrepancy in voters’ exposure to candidates begets profoundly disproportionate levels of turnout between states; Michael McDonald’s research shows that turnout in the 2012 presidential election averaged 11% higher in nine identified battleground states than in non-battlegrounds. Similarly, in the 2008 election — which was notable for its higher-than-average turnout nationwide — votes cast in 15 key states still averaged 7% higher than elsewhere in the country. Such a major discrepancy in the electorate’s familiarity with candidates is a significant reason for both why turnout in presidential elections is relatively low in most states and why it should be expected to increase under the NPVIC, where every vote carries equal weight, regardless of where it is cast.
Scholars Curtis Gans and Leslie Francis have expressed concern that switching to a national popular vote would “lead to nothing more than a national media campaign…[with] very little impetus for grassroots activity” and argue that such a strategy would further decrease voter turnout; however, I disagree with this assumption. Even if presidential candidates were to confirm Gans and Francis’s fears by solely campaigning through national media platforms rather than tailoring their messages to specific states or regions, for many voters, having some exposure to candidates is better than having none at all. Kam and Zechmeister’s research finds a link between name recognition and candidate support, particularly in scenarios where little else is known about the candidates. Thus, it is plausible that voters would still be equipped with sufficient knowledge to turn out even in situations where voters only had minimal exposure to the candidates before the election. Still other research suggests that voters’ party identification offers an important heuristic guide of who to support — regardless of how tailored that candidate’s message is to a particular region or demographic. Finally, under the current system, some potential voters are hesitant to participate because they believe that their single vote won’t make a difference among the sea of Republican votes in Texas or Democratic votes in California, and still others bemoan the electoral college as an institution that ignores 80% of the electorate’s preferences. Passing the NPVIC would solve this problem and thus assure the entirety of the electorate that their votes truly count.
Ensuring that the American electoral system is conducive to fostering the highest possible voter turnout is a complex process, but also a necessary one. The NPVIC is one such path to accomplishing this goal. By tying presidential election outcomes to the national popular vote and ensuring voters in all states have an equal say in determining winners, the Compact effectively forces candidates to engage voters across all fifty states, thus greatly increasing the likelihood that the national electorate participates in presidential elections. Combined with other electoral reforms on the state and national levels, the NPVIC holds definite potential in the ongoing effort to improve turnout rates and ensure that outcomes of presidential elections represent the preferences of the American electorate as closely as possible in the years to come.
 National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, Article III.
 National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, Article IV.
 National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, Article I.
 Lijphart, Arend. “Unequal Participation: Democracy’s Unresolved Dilemma.” American Political Science Review, Vol. 91, Issue 1 (Mar. 1997). p 5.
 Prior, Markus. “News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout.” in Controversies in Voting Behavior. 5th ed. Washington, D.C: CQ Press, 2011. pp 41-64.
 Niemi, Richard G, Weisberg, Herbert F, and Kimball, David C. “Is Political Participation Declining or Simply Changing Form?” in Controversies in Voting Behavior. 5th ed. Washington, D.C: CQ Press, 2011. p 27.
 Koza, et al. Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote. National Popular Vote Press, 2013. 4th Ed. p 693.
 Kam, Cindy D. and Zechmeister, Elizabeth J., “Name Recognition and Candidate Support.” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Oct. 2013). pp 971-986.
 Bartels, Larry M. “Partisanship and Voting Behavior, 1952-1996.” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan. 2000). pp. 35-50.
 Koza, et al. Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote. National Popular Vote Press, 2013. 4th Ed. pp 693-4.
Alice Malmberg is a guest contributor for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.
Alice Malmberg‘s research interests include exploring how to overcome barriers to voter turnout and how PACs and campaign finance determine voter information and access to candidates. Since graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 2018 with degrees in Politics and Feminist Studies, Alice has worked for elected officials and on campaigns in multiple states. She lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and the San Francisco Bay Area.