Election Administration Under National Popular Vote: Simpler Than You Might Think

by Andrea Levien // Published May 15, 2013



Connecticut State Capitol

The National Popular Vote plan has been making great strides in state legislatures around the country. A few weeks ago, it passed the Oregon House of Representatives, and it is poised to pass other legislative chambers in the coming months, including in Connecticut, a state I had the privilege to call home for four years.

Unfortunately, there are still some misconceptions out there about what the bill does and what that would mean for presidential elections. A few of these misconceptions were recently expressed by Luther Weeks of Connecticut Voters Count, a Connecticut-based election integrity organization, in a comment made under an article about former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis’ recent visit to Connecticut to support the passage of the National Popular Vote there. Weeks' concerns center around questions of election administration under National Popular Vote, namely, whether there is an official national popular vote count based on which compacting states would be able select their electors, and how a recount might work under a national populate vote. He also worries that a lack of uniformity in state voting procedures could make the votes in some states count more than others.

His concerns are not unusual among skeptics of the National Popular Vote plan. Luckily, each question is easy to answer. 

An Official National Popular Vote Count

Some question whether there is an official national popular vote count for the purposes of this bill, since under National Popular Vote, compacting states select their slate of electors based on who won the popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The quick answer is that there is an official national popular vote count.  The National Popular Vote bill defines the national popular vote count as the summation of the popular vote count in every state, as certified by the chief election official in each state. Under section 6 of Title 3 of the United States Code, every state is required to report its official vote count in a Certificate of Ascertainment to the Archivist of the United States prior to the mid-December meeting of the Electoral College. Since every state is required to report its official vote count prior to the meeting of the Electoral College – more specifically, six days prior to the meeting, as specified under section 5 of Title 3 of United States Code – states party to the National Popular Vote plan will be able to determine the official national popular vote total by adding up the vote totals reported in each Certificate of Ascertainment prior to the meeting of their own electors.

Recounts under National Popular Vote

Luther Weeks was correct when he pointed out that there are no national recount or audit laws. Under the National Popular Vote plan, each state would be responsible for conducting recounts within their own borders, just as they are under the current system. Thus, under the National Popular Vote plan, if a presidential candidate desired a recount in every state, they would need to request one in every state, in accordance with each states’ individual recount procedures. In effect, recounts under the National Popular Vote plan would operate the same way that they do today, on a state-by-state basis. Of course, recount are extremely rare, and are also extremely unlikely to alter the outcome of an election. Between 2000 and 2012, of the 4,072 statewide elections that took place, only 22 resulted in a recount. Of those 22 elections, only three resulted in a different candidate winning than after the original count, and the average change in the outcome was a decrease in the margin of victory of 294 votes. Under a national popular vote, a recount would be highly unlikely, but if it were to occur, individual states would control how those recounts were conducted, just as they do under the current system.

Voter Fraud and Error

Some claim that the current system is preferable to a national popular vote because under the current system, any fraud occurring in one state would only affect the electoral votes in that state, and not nationwide. However, even if under the current system, fraud would only affect the electoral votes in one state, if that state was the last state that a candidate needed to reach the winning threshold of 270 electoral votes, than the fraud in that state could easily affect who becomes the next president. Therefore, under the current system, fraud and error would be more likely to change the outcome of an election than under National Popular Vote.

For example, in 2000, a flip of 527 votes from George W. Bush to Al Gore in Florida would have made Gore president, while under a national popular vote, and a flip of 250,000 would have been necessary to change the outcome. In 2004, flipping 60,000 votes in Ohio would have made John Kerry, not George W. Bush, president, while nationwide, 1.5 million Bush supporters would have needed to vote for Kerry to alter the outcome. It is hard to imagine a national popular vote, in which about 130 million votes are cast, with margins as narrow as we saw in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004.

Equality Between States

Under National Popular Vote, every vote would be equal, unlike under our current winner-take-all system, when a vote in Ohio is far more likely to alter the result of the election than a vote in Connecticut, and is therefore valued far more highly by presidential candidates. It is true that states that suppress their voter turnout will contribute fewer votes to the national popular vote total than they could, and it is at the discretion of those states’ legislators to change their election rules to increase their share of the national popular vote by enfranchising more of their citizens. In this way, National Popular Vote promotes fairness in presidential elections, while our current system perpetuates an unacceptable inequality that must be changed.

Got any more questions? Email Andrea at alevien@fairvote.org. Also, you can find more detailed answers to these questions in Chapter 9 of the new edition of Every Vote Equal, available for free download at Every-vote-equal.com.