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Was National Popular Vote just a messaging bill?
Sean Parnell • Feb 29, 2024

A recent comment by a Democratic state legislator raises serious questions about the National Popular Vote interstate compact (NPV). After talking through numerous and serious defects in the compact, the comment was (I’m paraphrasing): “It seems like this was just supposed to be a messaging bill.”

The point of a “messaging bill” is to give legislators the opportunity to show where they stand on an issue. It’s not meant to take effect, just to make a statement. NPV certainly shares one common feature of many messaging bills, which is that the substance is sloppily drafted without concern for details or unintended consequences.

This reminded me of similar comment made by Professor Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard history professor and author of the book Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?, who is sympathetic to NPV but has also criticized it. As he explained in a 2020 interview:

“There is a political scenario here, which is talked about quietly, which is get the compact somewhere close to 270, which will threaten chaos and then compel Congress to turn its attention to an amendment.”

In this analysis, NPV is a stalking horse, not just a messaging bill, intended to give Congress the choice of allowing the badly defective compact to go into effect and cause “electoral crises” and an “historic debacle” (in the words of one of the law professors who initially conceived the idea of NPV) or proposing a Constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College or otherwise make wholesale changes to the process.

There is a third option of course – it’s neither a messaging bill nor a stalking horse, simply a very badly written piece of legislation rife with unintended consequences. Those sorts of bills are certainly plentiful in the legislative process as well.

But regardless of whether NPV is a messaging bill, stalking horse, or just badly drafted legislation, it seems unwise to let the compact advance any further.