Lobbyists for the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV) pitch their scheme to Republican lawmakers as a way to help their party win elections. As I understand the argument, large numbers of Republican voters in states like California stay home in presidential election years because, as NPV’s lobbyists describe it, “their votes don’t count.” Without these GOP voters turning out, Republican candidates for other offices – state legislature, Congress, etc. – wind up losing. Implement NPV, its lobbyists claim, and Republican voters will turn out in California and deliver more victories for down-ballot candidates.
There are many, many things wrong with this argument, starting with the sheer repugnance of the idea that the Constitutional process for selecting the President of the United States ought to be recklessly tossed aside in order to maybe help one party win a few state legislative seats or county commissioners in California.
Beyond that, the argument by NPV’s lobbyists simply doesn’t make much sense or hold up against the evidence. For example, if there really is this large reservoir of Republican voters staying at home because their vote allegedly “doesn’t count,” wouldn’t there also be an even larger group of Democrats (party registration in California is roughly 2:1 in favor in Democrats) staying home for the same reason? Wouldn’t they turn out too, offsetting (or more than offsetting, given the disparity in registration) any increase in Republican turnout?
Far more likely, however, is that under NPV there would not be much of an increase, if any, in turnout by either Republican or Democratic voters in California or elsewhere. The most recent evidence against the NPV lobbyists’ theory comes from the unsuccessful recall effort against Governor Gavin Newsom.
If there is a test of the NPV theory, the California recall election is it. The recall was initiated by Republicans angry over what they saw as Newsom’s poor record in office, it received significant media attention throughout the state, and it had tens of millions of dollars spent by both recall committees and the candidates seeking to replace Newsom if he lost. The state mailed a ballot to every registered voter. Media reports before the election described an “energized” Republican base and an “apathetic” Democratic base. There was no argument that anybody’s vote wouldn’t count. If there was an election in which this alleged hidden reserve of California Republican voters was going to show up, this was it.
Votes are still being tallied as I write this (California historically takes a long time to count all the votes), but it looks like Newsom handily won the recall election with about 64 percent voting “no” and 36 percent voting “yes.” That compares favorably to his 2018 election, when he received about 62 percent of the vote. A Washington Post article noted that “…the share of Republicans is slightly below last year’s 30 percent mark…”
This is all different than what we’d expect to see if the NPV lobbyists’ theory is correct.
The California recall results aren’t the only evidence against NPV’s theory that the compact would help Republicans win down-ballot races. As I’ve written before, there doesn’t seem to be much of a relationship between statewide turnout and whether a state is a presidential “battleground” or “safe” state. Instead, turnout is driven largely by the political and voting cultures of each state. Minnesota, for example, leads the nation in turnout just about every presidential and mid-term cycle despite not really being a “battleground” state. Other states in the top ten in terms of voter turnout include Colorado, Washington, Oregon, New Jersey, and Vermont, none of them “battlegrounds” in recent memory.
As the California recall demonstrates, there doesn’t appear to be a large pool of Republican voters in the state just waiting for a chance to cast a vote that “counts.” Nor is there likely to be any overall boost in turnout under NPV, and certainly not one that brings Republicans out while Democrats stay home.
Republicans in California have struggled in recent cycles (though they had a good 2020 in U.S. House races), and I’m probably not the one to tell them what they can do to reverse their decline. But it should be clear that tossing aside the Electoral College wouldn’t help, in California or any other state. Republican Party leaders seeking solutions to their woes should ignore the claims made by NPV’s lobbyists and look elsewhere.