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The Electoral College represents people, National Popular Vote doesn’t
Sean Parnell • Jun 02, 2021

Common refrains among advocates for the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV) are that “every vote should be equal” and “every voter in every state should be politically relevant.” These are appealing slogans, but miss a lot of how a republic works, including that representation is more than simply mustering a plurality (or, at best, a majority) of voters on election day (though that’s important).

This was recently driven home for me by, ironically enough, a memo produced by the folks at the National Popular Vote organization arguing against the congressional district method of allocating electors, which is how Maine and Nebraska do it.

The memo makes some reasonable points – gerrymandering would be an issue – but their overarching complaint is that the district method does not achieve mathematically perfect equality among voters. What jumped out at me was a section of the memo complaining that “voter turnout varies considerably from district to district. Under the congressional-district system, a voter in a low-turnout district has greater voting power in choosing the President than a voter in a high-turnout district.” This criticism mirrors a complaint made by NPV advocates about the current system, which is that voters in low-population states supposedly have more power than voters in high-population states.

What struck me was the idea embedded in the NPV critique that only voters matter. That, suffice it to say, would be completely at odds with how our representative republic was set up. It is people who are supposed to be represented, as a casual glance at the U.S. Constitution can confirm. The first words of the Constitution are “We the People,” not “We the Voters,” and Congressional representatives are apportioned among the states according to the number of “persons” in each state, not voters.

It’s for this reason that the people of Texas’ 14th and 33rd and congressional districts, each with a roughly identical population, each have one Representative in Congress even though in 2020 nearly 309,000 people voted in the former while fewer than 158,000 voted in the latter. There are no doubt multiple reasons why turnout varied so much between these districts – neither was particularly competitive, but perhaps more people of the 33rd are under age 18 or are foreign citizens and thus ineligible to vote. Maybe the dominant political party in the 14th just had a better turnout operation there. Regardless, every person in each district is represented, not just those who happen to vote in a particular election.

And so with the Electoral College, it is people, organized within the states, who are represented in the presidential election process, not simply voters. The eleven electoral votes that both Massachusetts and Tennessee had in 2020 are supposed to represent the interests of the similar number of people in each state, even though more than 3.6 million voters turned out in Massachusetts while Tennessee only had a little over 3 million voters.

Voters matter, of course – they are the people who literally decide who gets elected to represent all of the people in a district or state. But an Electoral College process in which each state’s voters choose which candidate their state’s electors will support reflects the idea that every person is represented in the presidential election process. By eliminating state lines, NPV seeks to focus on a raw national vote total, but this might reduce the number of people who are actually represented in the process.