43

I am French and therefore have understandably a hard time understanding the cultural aspects of indirect voting in the United States. I read the history of this approach and some of the main technical consequences (Wikipedia's United States presidential election article is quite informative there).

While every country has its own way of electing representatives, there is usually a reason behind that (a cartel of main parties that want to keep the status quo for instance).

What is the core reason for that indirect voting system in the US?

  • is this because of Article 2 of the Constitution that cannot be changed?
  • or because Democrats and Republicans agree that this is in their best interest to keep it like this?
  • or because there is a strong attachment to the state-run elections of the population, ingrained in the culture, where each state sends their representatives in a "winner gets all" fashion?
  • or something else?

Our counting system in France is flawed as well(*), but there is no particular will to change that - probably because people do not know much about other counting methods (such a as preferential voting - when I was in middle-school in the 80's we had an explanation of the voting systems, now it is not the curriculum anymore). On the other hand, the US system is so unusual (and you have direct voting for other representatives) that it stands out quite a bit.


(*) the Frech one is flawed as almost any others - by making it difficult for some entities to have a presence in the Parliament despite popular support, the prime example being the Rassemblement National (a right wing party). Please note: I am not trying to start a war here, merely mentioning that their representative (Marine Le Pen) was one of the two final pretenders to the presidency (33% of the votes), but her party has only a handful of deputies (1%)

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    Related: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/9470/… (or at least the first answer is) and also politics.stackexchange.com/questions/44080/… – zibadawa timmy Nov 6 '20 at 14:09
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    I think one idea that might help some understand the US is that, in some respects, it has more in common with the EU than with an individual European country. The EU also has an indirectly elected president. – Extrarius Nov 6 '20 at 19:53
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    @EricDuminil: what I was trying to show is the huge disproportion between the popular direct vote (30% of the population was for Marine Le Pen) vs. the tiny representation though the Parliament (1%), due to the voting system that could be improved (I am a big fan of the preferential/ranking voting system that reduces the idea of "I will not vote for that small party though I think they are the best because my vote will be lost, I prefer to vote for the closest big one") – WoJ Nov 7 '20 at 9:57
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    @Denis Comparing things in different categories can sometimes improve understanding. The US does not have a unitary government. For people familiar only with unitary states, the EU may be something familiar that has some similarities to the federal state organization of the US. There are certainly also many differences, which is why I qualified my statement with "in some respects". To clarify my statement, I was talking about the individual commissioner serving as president of the European Commission (comparing heads of executive branches seems reasonable to me) – Extrarius Nov 9 '20 at 17:22
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    Most why-do-the-yanks-do-this-that-way type questions are usually dealt with in the federal papers. In this case, Federalist 68. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_No._68 – C'est Moi Nov 9 '20 at 22:42
5

There are a couple of reasons for this.

The original conception of the United States as a union of sovereign states

The first reason is the one that Accumulation's answer has already covered well: the U.S. was originally conceived as a union of independently sovereign states, more akin to the European Union than to France.

Balancing the interests of more and less populous states

The other reason - at least equally important and which remains completely true today - is that less populous states don't want a handful of cities to have complete control over the entire continent-spanning country. In order to get both the less-populous and more-populous states to agree to join the United States, a compromise was conceived, balancing power between both the more-populous and less-populous states.

Representation in Congress

In the House of Representatives, seats are allocated according to population, such that each Representative represents a roughly-equal number of citizens. This prevents more numerous, but less populous rural states from controlling everything.

In the Senate, each state gets equal representation - namely, 2 Senators. This prevents a few highly-populous states - which are, in turn, controlled primarily by a few highly-populous cities - from controlling everything.

In order for legislation to pass, it must pass in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, thus requiring compromise between the interests of large cities, suburban areas, and rural areas.

The Presidency (and Electoral College)

For the Presidency, the Electoral College is a balance between these two factors. Each state gets a number of electors equal to the sum of the allocated sizes of its delegations to the Senate and House of Representatives, giving each state a minimum of 3 electoral votes (1 Representative + 2 Senators.) Since the House has 435 seats and the Senate only has 100, more than 4/5 of the electoral votes are allocated by population, but less-populous states still get some electors so that their votes aren't completely irrelevant compared to the votes in large urban areas.

Why it matters

If the Presidency were elected by pure popular vote, then there would be near zero incentive for the President (or someone running for President) to care much about the interests of people in states like Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, or Nebraska. The electoral college system is designed to ensure that such states still have some say in who becomes President and, thus, someone running for President has some incentive to actually care about their interests.

As for comparisons vs. countries like France, regional interests vary far more across the U.S. than they do across France both because of pure scale (both geographic and population, but especially geographic) and vast differences in population density. There's not really any part of France that comes close to the (lack of) population density of the U.S. West (minus the West Coast.) There is nothing like Arizona, let alone Wyoming, Montana, or especially Alaska, in France. Alaska is over 2.7 times the geographic size of the entire country of France by itself, yet has a population significantly smaller than the urban area of Nice alone.

It's really hard to describe the scale of the cultural differences between a place like Alaska or Wyoming and a place like Manhattan or San Francisco. You pretty much need to see it for yourself to begin to understand it. There is no analogue to places like Alaska or Wyoming anywhere in Western or Central Europe (or probably anywhere in Europe at all, save possibly the extreme Northern reaches of Scandinavia.) You can travel distances roughly equivalent to crossing the entire country of France and pass through maybe 3 or 4 (very) small towns in that distance. The idea behind having the compromise setup in the U.S. Congress and Presidency is to ensure that the interests of both are adequately represented and one or the other isn't completely ignored.

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    The EC doesn't compel candidates to campaign in small states, either. It rewards candidates who campaign for votes in swing states, which are inevitably a small subset of the population. A popular vote would trigger roughly the same behavior: candidates would not waste too much resources on reliable votes, instead expending them to acquire swing/independent votes, but if that happens to be in a state with few electors, but the cost-effectiveness is high, then we should expect to see campaigning there. – Lawnmower Man Nov 7 '20 at 2:23
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    @LawnmowerMan It doesn't compel them to campaign there, but, if they want to actually win the office, they at least need to care about the varied interests of a broad portion of the country, not just a handful of urban areas. The convention delegates who designed the compromise had little interest in compelling anyone to campaign anywhere. They didn't exactly have 747s to fly around the continent on back then. They did, however, have interest in ensuring that the interests of the entire country were represented, not just a few corners of it. – reirab Nov 7 '20 at 2:29
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    I love pointing out that while you need the population of ten states for a popular vote majority you only need 11 states’ electoral votes for a majority. (Second number subject to change after the census.) – Jan Nov 18 '20 at 14:25
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The people weren't trusted

It'll take a bit to get to the titular statement, as we need to discuss the history leading up to the Constitution to understand and justify it.

Between the war for independence and the ratification of the US Constitution was a span of several years. The states were organized into a nation under the Articles of Confederation for this span. It was a near-catastrophic failure.

Perhaps the most important reason for this failure is that the Articles were designed to create an extremely weak federal government: there was no ability to enforce federal laws, no federal judiciary or courts, no ability to collect or levy taxes, no regulation of trade, and amendments needed unanimous consent from all of the states. This quickly led to problems as there arose national-scale problems that the federal government had literally no power to deal with, and states routinely subverted or outright disregarded federal laws and each other with impunity. The unanimous consent on amendments was a death knell, preventing the implementation of desperately needed changes. Things got so bad that a rebellion in Massachusetts arose, and there was nothing the government could do but sit back and cross its fingers.

So the federal legislature authorized a convention to discuss and propose various amendments to the Articles of Confederation that could resolve the issues at hand. The members, however, came to the conclusion that the Articles were essentially impossible to save, and so they decided to just write an all new constitution. This ultimately gave us the Constitution we have today.

The lessons learned from the Articles, and their great failure, guided the construction of the new one. They created a bicameral legislature that would create a form of degressive representation: the House would be proportional to population, and the new Senate would be a body representing each State equally, much as the Congress under the Articles had been, and each chamber was required to consent on legislation. Thus the complaints of insufficient representation of the people was addressed via the addition of the House, and the Senate retained the equality of the states, offering the smaller states a bulwark against the masses (who would primarily be in cities and heavily populated states, and so would have diverging interests from more rural or smaller states and peoples).

However, this did not quite satisfy the Southern states, which were largely rural agrarian with low (white male) populations but lots of slaves. The states that depended on slavery could foresee the inevitable and quick death of the system under a system that was apportioned with respect to the free (white male) population, as it was clear they could not possibly force a direct protection of slavery into the constitution. This leads to the compromise covered in pjc50's answer: the basis for representation in the House would include three-fifths of the slave population. This elevated the amount of representation of the slave states enough that they could expect to readily subvert or block any attempts to weaken or directly abolish slavery.

But this was still not enough. Remember, the federal government was extremely weak under the Articles of Confederation, and that was the primary problem they were working to fix. So the federal government was now going to be stronger, possibly even strong (how strong the federal government should be has always been a bone of political contention in the US, from day one to today). And there was going to be a President to run the whole thing and execute the laws. And the framers saw lots of problems in a direct popular vote for the President.

The first problem—and the only one we need to go into to answer your question—is that the US at the time was mostly rural agrarian and sparsely populated. And there were no telegraphs, or telephones, or trains, or anything faster than horses. News as such traveled slowly, and the populace of each state was largely isolated from each other. And most of the people who could vote were only expected to be knowledgeable of local matters, and deeply preoccupied with time-consuming labors. So how could we trust all of these poorly-informed voters, with no time to spare to really delve into the political issues at stake, to pick someone to lead a whole nation?

Their answer is that we couldn't. The people would really only know those people relevant to their own area and state, and the wants and needs of that area and state, and that would be disastrously divisive on a national scale. So they concocted the idea of the electors. Rather than have the people vote for a President directly, they would instead vote for electors, and the electors would vote for the President. These electors were envisioned as well-educated men, well-versed in national affairs, the greater national picture, and the Presidential candidates in particular. This would allow them to make the well-reasoned and informed decision on who should be President that the framers believed was necessary, while still being sourced by the wills and desires of the people themselves.

This, then, is the answer to the question you ask: at the time the US Constitution was written, the people were not trusted to be able to make a collective, national-scale decision due to having insufficient exposure and time to put in the proper level of consideration of national issues. So instead we pick electors who do have the knowledge and time necessary, and who we have some trust in, to do the job for us (the people). As you can already guess, historical momentum has led the system to simply never correct for all of the Framers' assumptions being violated: the states and peoples are now deeply integrated, news travels in minutes to all corners of the nation (and world), the people as a whole are ridiculously well-informed and well-educated (compared to the standards at the time the Constitution was written), you can physically cross the entire country (which is now much larger than it was then) in a matter of hours, and party loyalty is the only qualifier for electors.

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    This is an awesome answer to the question why the system was made this way, but doesn't address why it hasn't changed (which I think is a strongly implied additional question). – Michael Borgwardt Nov 6 '20 at 15:28
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    @MichaelBorgwardt That's hundreds of years worth of explanations, and mostly speculation. The phrase "historical momentum" is what covers that, and is in the answer. – zibadawa timmy Nov 6 '20 at 19:29
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    @MiniRagnarok No, that would have all been hammered out in the convention where the new constitution was written. But the basic assumptions of the time were that only the propertied white male citizens were eligible to vote, and only citizens should have a say in any aspect of the (federal) government. Fully counting the slaves was probably seen as giving too much by the other states, while none was too little for the slave states. The 3/5 compromise was, as the moniker suggests, a compromise between the two extremes. – zibadawa timmy Nov 6 '20 at 21:03
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    It was NOT because the people weren't trusted, it's because the United States was formed from a motley collection of independent countries. The smaller ones didn't want the larger ones simply running roughshod over them. You might compare this to the EU, rather than a more homogenous country like France. – jamesqf Nov 7 '20 at 2:04
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    @jamesqf That's why the senate exists. The electoral college was to mute the impact of the people. At best we can say that the 3/5 compromise (and possibly Senate) kind of forced an electoral college point system as a matter of computational simplicity, but it does nothing to explain the electors themselves. They could have just awarded the points directly from the popular vote in each state, but that was rejected. They could have let the state legislatures award the points however they wanted. But that was rejected. They picked electors (picked by a method set by the legislature). – zibadawa timmy Nov 7 '20 at 2:18
28

The reason why this was established is that the United States was originally conceived as, well, a union of states. The United States Constitution is, in some sense, a treaty between 13 sovereign entities. The president isn't elected by the people of the US, they're elected by the states. The states choose to assign their votes according to how their population votes, but the constitution does not require this (and this wasn't always how all the states chose their electors). In many ways, the EU, rather than France, is a better analog to the original conception of the US.

The reason it remains is that it takes a large supermajority to change the constitution. Up until the 2000 election, there wasn't much pressing need for a change, as the electoral vote largely followed the popular vote. In ensuing decades, as Republicans have repeatedly won the electoral vote while losing the popular votes, Democrats have increasingly wanted to get rid of the electoral college. However, given that this amendment is now being desired primarily by one party, and the other one controls enough to states to block it, it's unlikely to pass. The main route for amendments requires 3/4 of the states. Each state counts as one vote, which is different from the electoral college, but any party that controls 3/4 of the states would almost certainly control more than 50% of the electoral college* making the amendment largely moot.

There is also an attempt called "National Popular Vote Interstate Compact" to do an end run around the constitution, but it works only if states representing a majority of the electoral vote join. Since getting a state to join is harder than winning its popular vote, establishing the Compact is more difficult than just winning the electoral college.

*It takes 12 states to block an amendment. The 11 most populous states make up a majority of the electoral college, so theoretically it's possible for one party to control the electoral college but not being able to block an amendment, but it's not very probable. Those states include both California and Texas.

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    was originally conceived as, well, a union of states. ... The president isn't elected by the people of the US, they're elected by the states. The Framers viewed the President as the representative of the people at large, who was meant to be a check against the power of the states. It is necessary then that the Executive Magistrate should be the guardian of the people, even of the lower classes, agst. Legislative tyranny, against the Great & the wealthy who in the course of things will necessarily compose the Legislative body. – endolith Nov 7 '20 at 13:52
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    @endolith That's "against the power of the federal government", not "against the power of the states". (Oops.) – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Nov 8 '20 at 1:07
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In short, because slavery.

A direct democratic election for an office that powerful was unacceptable to the slave states in 1787 when the Constitution was being drafted. I know this isn't what we like to put into children's histories, but its what the actual historical record says happened.

We actually have records of the debates. On July 17th POTUS selection by direct popular vote was voted down by the convention. Arguing against it in particular were Pinckney of South Carolina, Mason of Virginia, and Hugh Williamson of North Carolina. Those three states together held 75% of all the slaves in the USA when the first Census completed 3 years later.

The other two men used coded language about the people in general, which a lot of modern people insist on taking at face value, but Williamson flat out said that Virginia and the rest of the south would be at a disadvantage in a popular POTUS vote because "her slaves will have no suffrage."

Two days later Madison of Virginia (aka: "The Father of the Constitution"), in his journal reported the following about why popular vote wasn't going to work:

There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.

Farrand's Records, 2:56-57

This was Madison's view of why the idea of an Electoral College was brought forward in his journal on July 19th. The next day the Electoral College was voted on and passed. It was "reconsidered" 5 days later, and passed again.


Now from a logical view, in the world these men inhabited in 1787, this made a lot of sense. Remember that in nearly all states only free white men who owned property were allowed to vote. The northern states had a lot of small farms, and hadn't imported nearly as many "non-white" men, so this wasn't a tremendous barrier.

The Southern states had a incredibly hierarchical plantation-based society where mostly only the richest of the rich owned the land, and everyone else was either an employee or a slave. To have any hope of competing in a popular election, they'd have to let their hirelings and slaves vote, and that's clearly a not an option. If the 10% of masters allow the 90% of slaves to vote, they won't stay slaves for very long.

The Electoral College fixed this problem by giving each state a vote in the College proportional (roughly) to the number of its residents, while continuing to allow individual states to let as few of those residents actually have a vote as they cared to.

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    Small nitpick for the last paragraph: The number of electors was not exactly proportional to the number of residents: First, slaves (or non-free persons) were only counted as 3/5, "non-taxed indians" were not counted at all, and then each state got two electors on top (so smaller states got a bit more influence). – Paŭlo Ebermann Nov 9 '20 at 20:13
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    @PaŭloEbermann - Yeah, I really didn't want to take the punch out of that sentence by throwing in weasel-words to cover for irrelevant nitty detail, but I guess I'm going to have to... – T.E.D. Nov 9 '20 at 20:16
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    A lot more could be said here about things like congressional makeup, why they didn't just let Congress do pick him, and the 3/5th compromise. While I (and perhaps you?) would find all that really interesting, none of it directly addresses the question that was asked. – T.E.D. Nov 9 '20 at 20:18
9

The origin is linked to the original text of Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons

What that meant was that slave states got more representatives, including the indirect electors, in proportion to their slave populations, despite the slaves not being allowed to vote for those electors. This was the "original sin" that required amendment after the civil war.

or because Democrats and Republicans agree that this is in their best interest to keep it like this?

Almost every detail of the political system advantages one party and disadvantages another. Therefore there can be no bipartisan agreement on improvements, because any change will change the likely distribution of outcomes. Without bipartisan agreement nationwide, constitutional changes are impossible. (Not unreasonably, as that's effectively the point of constitutional status rather than ordinary legislation)

each state sends their representatives in a "winner gets all" fashion?

There is an attempt to change this by mutual agreement among the states: National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

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    I feel like this doesn't really answer the question as-is. Why does it follow from this clause that the Presidential election uses electors? The clause only refers to the House of Representatives, there's no mention of the President and his election. Some mention of how the demand for enhanced representation in the House also correlated to a demand for enhanced representation in the Presidential vote would be helpful. – zibadawa timmy Nov 6 '20 at 14:02
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    Therefore there can be no bipartisan agreement on improvements, because any change will change the likely distribution of outcomes, unless they change two things at once, one that benefits one side, another that benefits the other side. That's how universal suffrage was introduced in The Netherlands (the conservative side got the right to tax-funded religious education). What constitutional change may be important enough for Republicans to accept a change benefitting the Democrats, if any? – gerrit Nov 6 '20 at 20:12
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    @gerrit In the current environment, I'd say nothing. There are things they dearly want, sure, but losing anything they have is an instant poison pill to both sides. No, what we probably need at this point is for both Democrats and Republicans to get screwed over by the Electoral college system in a short span of time, so both sides are fresh with pain and willing to do away with it. – zibadawa timmy Nov 6 '20 at 21:41
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    @zibadawatimmy: If/when Texas ever gets around to turning purple, we could see that happen. – Kevin Nov 6 '20 at 23:17
6

As you've noted, the system is a result of Article II of the constitution. Strictly as a legal matter, this could be changed through a political amendment, but this is unlikely to be politically practical.

An amendment needs a two-thirds majority in both houses and then had to be ratified by three quarters of the states. This means that a change would need to be both overwhelmingly popular and popular all over the country.

Of course whatever states and parties are benefiting from an existing system at any given point in time are unlikely to support a change that would dilute that benefit. They'll be in the enviable political position of only needing 1/3 of congress or 1/4 of state legislatures and of being on the side of the status quo.

There's plenty of discussion of changing the way we vote, but it's unlikely to rise to the necessary level of support any time soon because the bar is so high. The most serious attempt is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would be a formal agreement among states to allocate their votes according to the national popular vote instead of their own vote. Because it would be a matter of state law(s) it would have nothing to do with a constitutional amendment. Essentially it would "work around" the electoral college and give the election to the popular vote winner whole working within the current rules. It would need enough states to join to make an electoral college majority, and this has not happened so far.

3

The fundamental reason is that the US electoral system was designed in the 18th century, when travel and the transport of information was difficult, time consuming, dangerous, and expensive. So the US electoral system is an 18th century solution to 18th century problems. As originally designed, individual voters were supposed to elect "electors" who they felt represented their views and their part of the country - then these electors were to get together, discuss the merits of the various candidates, and make their selection. However, the drafters of the Constitution did not predict the rise of political parties, and did not forsee that electors would soon become beholden to these parties for their appointment.

-1

Changing the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment that requires a supermajority of states for ratification. Since the current EC works to the advantage of all but the most heavily populated states, it is highly unlikely that enough of the other states would vote to reduce their representation, to get such an amendment ratified.

Evidence of that reluctance can be found in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an attempt to make an end run around Article II, by states pledging to give their electors to the winner of the popular vote.

Very few less populated states signed onto that, and one: Colorado, recently pulled out.

It bears noting that the US Senate operates on exactly the same principle as the Electoral College, with an even greater imbalance between population and representation: two senators per state, regardless of size.

Thus, tiny Rhode Island has the same representation in the Senate as California.

Curiously enough, those who oppose the current Electoral College do not appear to oppose the makeup of the Senate.

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    "Curiously enough, those who oppose the current Electoral College do not appear to oppose the makeup of the Senate." Oh, many of them do. We even have questions here about proposals for making a bunch of extra states out of the District of Columbia in order to try to stack the Senate for that reason. – reirab Nov 7 '20 at 2:20
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    The Senate, and in fact the bi-cameral legislature, owes its existence to the compromises needed to get small states to support the Constitution. If representation was based solely on population then the larger states would completely dominate the smaller ones, who would effectively have no voice, despite the view that the states were equal entities. Thus, the House of Representatives was created to provide representation based on population, while the Senate was create to provide equal representation to each of the states regardless of population. For Americans this is basic Civics 101. – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Nov 8 '20 at 23:18
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    Colorado did not pull out of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. It joined it this year at a 52-48 vote. – Beefster Nov 9 '20 at 19:52

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