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Voting reform community sees major problem with National Popular Vote
Sean Parnell • Jan 23, 2023

A few days ago, I wrote that the organization pushing the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV) continues to claim there is no conflict between the compact and Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). But as is often the case, arguments made by NPV’s lobbyists and advocates don’t hold up under scrutiny.

One claim made by NPV, Inc. is that because Rob Richie, probably the nation’s leading advocate for RCV, also helped to write the NPV compact, it must have been written in a way to avoid any conflict. This claim ignores that Richie himself has acknowledged the conflict, serving as the lead author of a 2021 paper titled “Toward a More Perfect Union: Integrating Ranked Choice Voting with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.” The paper includes the following regarding NPV’s effort to add votes from RCV states to the votes from other states:

“…as currently drafted, the [NPV compact] seems to assume a plurality system…. [U]sing RCV for Presidential elections in states might seem incompatible with [NPV]. Most fundamentally, which votes should be reported out for the purpose of [NPV]? Would it be the first choices among all the candidates? Or would it be the final “instant runoff” totals after the RCV tallies are completed? If that latter choice were made, what if one of the two strongest national candidates was eliminated during the RCV tally in a given state?

Richie’s concerns, it should be noted, are pretty much the same as those we at Save Our States have been expressing for quite some time, though he does believe the conflict can be resolved with either federal legislation forcing every state to give voters a ranked-choice ballot or a new interstate compact that states using ranked choice voting could join (at some later point I’ll do another blog post explaining the serious problems with these two proposed solutions).

One thing that occurred to me when looking into this issue is that RCV, of course, is not the only voting reform on the table when it comes to alternatives to plurality voting, although RCV probably has more momentum behind it than the others. There’s Approval Voting, STAR Voting, and Range Voting, just to name a few. I wondered – have leading advocates for and researchers of these alternative voting systems weighed in on this issue the same way Richie has?

The answer is yes, and all seem to understand that NPV isn’t designed to handle anything other than plurality voting, at least not without a major rewrite, a supplemental interstate compact, or other significant action to correct for this defect in NPV. Interestingly, most and perhaps all of the advocates and researchers I found seem favorable to NPV at least as a concept even as they admit that, as it is currently written, it would be a “trainwreck.”

For example, Dr. Warren D. Smith of the Center for Range Voting warns that there will be “massive problems” trying to combine NPV with any system similar to RCV:

Warning! Voting reform trainwreck approaching – need to act now to avoid the problem

The people behind the National Popular Vote (NPV) are well-intentioned voting reformers. And so are the voting reformers advocating better voting methods (e.g. range voting) to replace our present very-flawed “plurality” voting system… these two reforms, unless careful attention is paid to the matter (which it apparently hasn’t) will conflict and may permanently destroy each other….

The difficulty is if some state, thanks to the efforts of voting reformers, adopts a different voting system than plurality voting, such as instant runoff voting, approval voting, range voting, or a Condorcet system. Then what?

Several massive problems then immediately erupt….

Different kinds of voting systems in different states simply were not designed to be agglomerated to yield one overall "popular vote winner."

Steve Cobb of Unsplit the Vote, another voting reform organization, notes that most alternative forms of voting do not produce vote totals that work with the NPV compact:

The NPVIC and Approval Voting

The NPVIC was unfortunately written assuming the current [plurality voting] method, with no regard for alternative voting methods. The compact text says that the chief election official of each member state shall:

  1. “determine the number of votes for each presidential slate”
  2. “add such votes together to produce a ‘national popular vote total’ for each presidential slate”
  3. “designate the presidential slate with the largest national popular vote total as the ‘national popular vote winner'”

Not all voting methods produce “a number of votes”. In fact, most do not. Neither the rating nor ranking methods work that way. The various methods produce various numbers, but they are apples and oranges. Tossing them all in a blender might produce an interesting smoothie, but not a useful count.

The website for the organization promoting STAR Voting also notes that NPV assumes traditional voting, and isn’t compatible with alternative forms of voting without significant fixes:

Can we use STAR Voting for Presidential elections?

When the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) was drafted, no provisions were made and no clause was included which specifies how the popular vote would be counted in states which use alternative voting methods for the presidential general election. Because the NPVIC has already been signed by a number of states, it's too late to add this clause to the original compact.

The founders of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact have since recommended that any state which adopts an alternative voting method sign on to another interstate compact which would specify how votes in these states would be summed with each-other and with choose-one Plurality votes from the rest of the country.

Even states who do not plan to sign onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact should sign onto the Alternative Voting Interstate Compact in order to ensure that their votes would be counted correctly and fairly. If the NPVIC goes into effect this will ensure that votes from all states will be included in the national popular vote.

Although the STAR Voting site claims that the founders of NPV recommend that states should sign on to another compact to address the problem, I’ve never seen any such recommendation in public – it would be interesting to hear someone at either organization go on the record on this!

The compact referenced on the STAR Voting site is called the Alternative Voting Methods Interstate Compact (AVM), and is available at the site of a group called Equal Vote. Whoever wrote the language on the site couldn’t quite bring themselves to spell out the conflict between NPV and anything other than plurality voting, but does hint at it in the description, stating that the AVM would allow “national election results to publish vote totals consistently and accurately, including votes from states using alternative voting methods” by specifying “how alternative votes should be summed for states which may choose to assign their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.”

I’m not going to analyze that compact here, except to say it looks like a convoluted mess. For example, here are the instructions for how to convert votes for NPV’s use under “scored,” “rated,” and “graded” voting systems:

  • 1 point shall be received by all candidates with the highest possible rating on each ballot.
  • 0 points shall be received by all candidates with the lowest possible rating on each ballot.
  • The decimal points received by all candidates who were given an intermediary rating shall be proportional to the number of grades in the scale used and shall increase regularly at consistent intervals.
    Example: a grading scale of Good, Okay, Bad, would be converted to 1, .5, and 0 points.
  • Formula: Each score in the range N to X counts (S-N)/(X-N) points toward the scored candidate’s point total where S is the score given by the voter, N is the worst possible rating, and X is the best possible rating. For example, on a score ballot with a range of -2 to 2, a score of 1 would count (1-(-2))/(2-(-2))=0.75 points toward the scored candidate’s point total.

So, every vote is equal, except for those that are counted as .75 of a vote, I guess? That could be a problem (and on a scale with six different ratings, some ballots would be worth three-fifths of a vote – which seems awkward, historically speaking).

Without diving any deeper into the weeds, the conclusion here seems pretty obvious: people who are knowledgeable about alternatives to plurality voting (and who aren’t on the NPV, Inc. payroll) admit that NPV – something many of them like – is incompatible with ranked-choice voting, approval voting, and anything else that isn’t plurality voting. They hope for some further compact or other fix, but I have grave doubts that even a rewrite, additional compacts, or federal legislation could resolve these problems. Hopefully, more people will question NPV’s advocates about this significant defect in the compact, and realize the chaos and confusion that would occur if it ever took effect.

This post has been updated to include Rob Richie’s proposed fixes to the problems ranked choice voting causes for NPV.