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Why NPV might drive down voter turnout
Trent England • Feb 04, 2021

In a recent post, Sean Parnell offers something all too rare in political debates: data. He shows that a state’s status as “safe” or “battleground” does not determine voter turnout. Some high turnout states in 2020 were not battlegrounds, like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon (and Vermont!). And some battleground states had lower turnout than the national average, like Arizona, Nevada, and Texas.

This is important because opponents of the Electoral College often claim a national popular vote would result in higher turnout. Sean debunked one of their assumptions: that safe/battleground status drives turnout. I want to debunk the other: that a national popular vote would make every state a “battleground.”

There are two reasons why a national popular vote scheme would fail to transform the entire country into a hotly contested battleground.

The first is the simplest: resources. Unless a direct election results in much more money in politics, campaigns will still have about the same amount of resources for advertising and turnout. To the extent that all this has any effect on voter turnout, shifting it around is like pushing and pulling on a balloon—one part goes down, another goes up, but the volume stays the same.

The second is a mix of math and psychology. In a tiny town with 50 voting residents, each person represents 2% of the total vote or more (if some people don’t vote). That is quite substantial—mathematically there is a much greater chance of being the decisive vote there than in a statewide election. And each state is much smaller than the nation as a whole. As the size of the election gets larger, the mathematical incentive for a voter to participate goes down—a reality that cuts against turnout claims made by direct election advocates.

Another aspect of this relates to polling and the media. With the Electoral College, there are always multiple different “paths” to win a presidential election. It is a plethora of state polls, rather than national polls, that matter. But in a direct election, there would be just one path and one set of polls. An election might appear neck-and-neck, and then voters might feel like the whole nation was a battleground—but just as likely, some elections will appear over before they begin, as the media pushes polls that claim to predict the outcome months in advance. In other words, the whole nation might wind up feeling like a “safe state.”

Finally, a word about campaigns’ voter turnout efforts. These are always easiest to put together in high-density areas—big cities and their suburbs. This is where a direct election scheme, like the National Popular Vote interstate compact, would shift political attention. Campaigns can’t help it—they will spend resources as efficiently as possible under whatever rules they find. The Electoral College does focus campaigns’ attention, in the final phase of an election, on the most evenly divided states; a national popular vote would shift some of that focus to the biggest cities. It’s the balloon again—pushing and pulling on it, but never really changing its size.