Will popular vote elect president in 2020?

The movement to change how presidents are elected is gaining steam and proponents of the long-stalled popular vote initiative are predicting victory by 2020.

Eleven states/jurisdictions have enacted the National Popular Vote (NPV) bill, giving the proposal 165 electoral votes — 61 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to trigger the new voting system. Legislatures that passed the law include California, Illinois, New Jersey. Massachusetts, Maryland, Washington, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Rhode Island and Vermont. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a popular vote bill into law last week.

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All of these states, as well as the nation’s capital are liberal leaning, but activists note they are making progress in red states, such as Oklahoma and Nebraska.

In the 2000 election, George W. Bush lost the popular vote and won the presidency. At the time, Democrats rallied behind the popular vote idea. The memory of that contested election has made many Democrats eager to jump on board, and some Republicans skeptical. 

The NPV bill guarantees the presidency to the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Under the bill’s interstate compact, all electorate votes from enacting states would go to the candidate with the most popular votes in the general election. The plan can only take effect when it is enacted by enough states to claim a majority of the electoral vote.

Criticism of the current Electoral College system stems from its "winner-take-all" approach, which awards all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate that wins the popular vote in that particular state. Winner-take-all systems generally mean presidential candidates ignore the states they know will go red or blue and focus their campaign efforts on battleground states instead.

"In the last several presidential elections, the number of battleground states has shrunk," said John Koza, chairman of the NPV.

 In the 2012 presidential election, for example, two-thirds of campaign funding went to four states: Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Aside from other events in handful of states, the majority of the country was ignored.

"The system simply doesn't work," said Koza, who predicts that the popular vote will be in effect by the 2020 presidential race.

Koza points out that battleground states get special treatment from the nation's capital, including federal grants and disaster relief. 

Presidential voting procedures are outlined in Article II of the Constitution, which gives each state the power to appoint a number of electors, who will then cast ballots for the president. NPV says this allows states to alter their voting procedures.

"We're not trying to change the Constitution," said Koza. "We're changing state winner-take-all laws."

Eliminating winner-take-all statuses would prevent candidates from winning the presidency without winning the nationwide popular vote, a phenomenon that occurred in four of the country's 57 presidential elections.

In 2004, John Kerry would have won the election with a shift of 59,393 votes in Ohio, despite President Bush's 3,000,000 vote lead nationwide.  In 2012, Mitt Romney would have been elected with a

shift of 214,393 votes, despite President Obama's nationwide lead of almost 5 million votes.

"It's the larger states that are the battleground states," said Koza. "That's one of the most persistent myths of the current system. People believe smaller states have an advantage, but they don't."

The 12 smallest states in the country have about the same population and have 40 electoral votes over Ohio's 18, but Ohio hosted 73 of 253 post-convention campaign events.

"Ohio received a quarter of presidential candidate visits with only a population of 11 million," said Koza. "Of the 13 smallest states in the country, [candidates] only campaign in one — New Hampshire."

"It's a complicated issue and we have to explain this bill," said  Koza. "With certainty, we can say there will be fewer battleground states in 2016."

Opponents say the movement is missing the point of the Electoral College. 

"Part of the problem is we don't accept the rules of the game," said Lara Brown, associate professor and program director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

"I very much see it as a failure to understand how the Electoral College works," Brown said. 

"Founders left it up to the states to direct how their voting procedures go," said Trent England, project director of Save Our States, an organization dedicated to protecting federalism and the Electoral College. 

Like Brown, Save Our States contends that the Electoral College ensures candidates have a broad base of national support before they are elected, instead of winning based on strong support from a concentrated geographic region.

"There's no election process that's perfect. But one of the things the founders got right was that it matters to have systems that were used over long periods of time," said England.