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Our democracy is fundamentally broken by a dangerous new era of fierce partisan divisions. Most voters are locked in congressional districts that are increasingly skewed toward one party. With no power to affect outcomes, too many votes simply do not matter. The problem goes beyond gerrymandering, redistricting, and money. The problem is districting itself. The zero-sum, winner-take-all system in which only one person is elected to represent each district no longer works in this era of hardened partisanship.
The Fair Representation Act (HR 3057) gives voters of all backgrounds and all political stripes the power to elect House Members who reflect their views and will work constructively with others in Congress. Under the Fair Representation Act, there will be more choices and several winners elected in each district. Congress will remain the same size, but districts will be larger, each electing 3, 4, or 5 winners. Voters will be free to rank their choices without fear of "spoilers." No district will be “red” or “blue.” Every district will fairly reflect the spectrum of voters.
Voters are clamoring for change. The Fair Representation Act is effective, constitutional, and grounded in American traditions. It will ensure that every vote counts and all voices are heard. Sign the petition to open our elections to more choice, greater diversity, and a stronger voice for all.
Why we need the Fair Representation Act
The U.S. Constitution does not say how states should elect their Members of the House of Representatives, and states used a variety of methods for most of the nation's history. However, since 1970, every state has elected only one per district in a winner-take-all election, due to a federal law passed in 1967. After half a century of exclusive use of single-winner districts, we need a new standard.
Elections under the single-winner district system are broken:
Elections are not competitive. More than 85% of U.S. House districts are completely safe for the party that holds them. and only 4% were true toss-ups in 2016. As a result, millions of Americans are perpetually represented by politicians they oppose, with little hope of changing things at the polls.
Outcomes are distorted. Massachusetts Republicans haven't elected a House Member in more than 2 decades. Oklahoma Democrats are similarly shut out. Minor parties are nearly always shamed as "spoilers." One party can run the House even when the other earns more votes. In fair elections, those with the most votes should win the most seats, but every American deserves a fair share.
Representatives are more polarized than voters. Voters in general elections must choose between polarized candidates selected by highly partisan primary voters, leaving many without a route to representation.
The Fair Representation Act can help:
Meaningful elections. By electing candidates from multi-winner districts with at least three seats each, fair representation voting would allow every voter to elect someone from the major party they support. And, more of each party's "big tent" would have the opportunity to support - and even elect - a candidate in the general election.
Accurate Representation. Because election results with ranked choice voting would be proportional within each district, the skewed outcomes of our current system would be a thing of the past. Voters that are now shut-out, like Republicans in Massachusetts or Democrats in Oklahoma, would win their fair share of representation. In every state, the number of seats earned by each party would align far more closely to their share of the vote.
Open elections to reflect our full diversity. With proportional outcomes and a wider variety of candidates advancing to the general election, the Fair Representation Act will create more fair opportunities for women, people of color, urban Republicans, rural Democrats, and independents.
What Does The Fair Representation Act Do?
The Fair Representation Act (HR 3057) is a proposed federal statute to change elections for Members of Congress. Beginning in 2022, House Members would be elected by ranked choice voting in primary and general elections. Members would be elected in multi-winner districts of up to five seats in states with more than one seat, with districts being drawn by independent redistricting commissions. The bill consists of four core components:
The "Single Transferable Vote" Form of Ranked Choice Voting for Primaries and the General Election
Multi-Winner Districts in States with More Than 1 Seat
Drawing Districts with Independent Redistricting Commissions
Fair Representation Voting Rule Instead of Winner-Take-All Voting Rule
Ranked Choice Voting for Primaries and the General Election
The Fair Representation Act requires that primary and general elections for in Congress be held with ranked choice voting. The goal with this system is to maximize the number of voters who help elect a candidate.
The ballot will give voters the freedom to rank candidates in order of choice: 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on.
Vote counting proceeds in rounds. At first, every ballot counts only for its 1st choice.
For the election of only 1 Member, if a candidate receives a majority (50% + 1) of the votes, then that candidate will be elected.
For the election of more than 1 Member in a multi-winner district, the threshold to win goes down. It is just over 1/3rd of vote for 2 seats, 1/4th for 3 seats, 1/5th for 4 seats , and 1/6th for 5 seats.
If a candidate exceeds that threshold of votes from 1st choices only, then that candidate will be elected.
Votes cast for winning candidates are “reweighted” so that any part of the votes that did not help elect that candidate can count for the next ranked choice in the following round.
In a round where no one passes the threshold, the candidate in last place is eliminated. If a voter’s top choice loses, their vote will count for their next choice.
This process repeats until all seats are elected.
In June of 2021, states will receive $1 million plus $500,000 per Representative to pay for election administration and education costs associated with ranked choice voting.
The Act would become part of the Help America Vote Act.
Multi-Winner Districts in States with More Than 1 Seat
The Fair Representation Act repeals the single-winner district mandate (2 U.S.C. 2c) and replaces it with a multi-winner district mandate in states that have more than one seat.
Any state electing 5 or fewer Members will not use districts, but will elect all statewide.
Any state electing 6 or more Members will elect from multi-winner districts. Multi-winner districts may not elect fewer than 3 or more than 5 Members each, with an equal number of persons per seat.
For primary elections, each political party will nominate candidates equal to the number to be elected in the district. States with “Top Two” will advance twice the number to be elected in the district.
Drawing Districts with Independent Redistricting Commissions
In states that must draw districts, a nonpartisan agency develops a pool of 60 candidates: 20 affiliated with the state’s majority party at the time of redistricting, 20 from its minority party, and 20 who are unaffiliated with either of those two parties. After a bipartisan legislative committee approves that pool, the nonpartisan agency randomly selects 4 from each category to create the 12-member commission. Those 12 choose a chair, who must come from the unaffiliated group. The commission then can operate.
After assembling an independent redistricting commission, a state is entitled to $150,000 per Representative to offset its costs.
Districts must be drawn according to criteria, in the following order of importance:: contiguity; consistency with the Voting Rights Act; no district can be completely safe for one political party (based on presidential vote totals from prior elections); as few districts as possible should elect 4 candidates (to avoid frequent 2-2 splits); as many districts as possible should elect 5 candidates (to maximize proportionality); respect for existing political boundaries and communities of interest; compactness; and respect for visible geographic features.
Each independent redistricting commission must operate transparently. After holding hearings around the state, it will publish preliminary maps, and then hold at least three further hearings with chances for public comments.
A majority of the commission (including at least one from each of the 3 groups) must approve a final congressional district map by August 15th of the year ending in the number one.
If the state does not establish the requisite non-partisan agency or legislative committee, if the legislative committee fails to approve a pool of applicants, or if the independent commission fails to approve a final plan, then a panel of federal judges will develop and adopt a congressional redistricting plan, guided by the same criteria.
Fair Representation Voting Rule Instead of Winner-Take-All Voting Rule
In the current district system, mandated in 1967, a candidate is only sure to win if receiving a majority (50% + 1) of the votes. This is called a “winner-take-all” voting rule.
Many states and cities with multi-winner districts also have winner-take-all voting rules. That means a majority (50% + 1) of the voters can elect 100% of the seats.
The Fair Representation Act establishes a “fair representation” voting rule. A majority (50% + 1) of voters can elect a majority of the seats, but not all seats. In a 5-winner district, 17% of voters can always elect 1 seat, 34% of voters can always elect 2 seats, and so on.
The Fair Representation Act in Your State
Under the Fair Representation Act, Congress will still be the same size it is now, but the districts will be larger and each will elect 3, 4, or 5 winners. When more than one person wins in a district, more voices in that district can be represented. With ranked choice voting, there will be no "red" or "blue" districts. Voters in the majority will elect most of the winners, but not all of them. Voters in the minority also get a seat at the table.
Below are examples of multi-winner district maps for every state. The states that elect 5 or fewer Representatives will have no districts and elect all statewide. States larger than that are divided into multi-winner districts that elect 3, 4, or 5 winners each. The analysis of each map assumes the state will use ranked choice voting, as required by the Fair Representation Act. Details about how each district map was drawn are below the table.
Click on your state to find out how the Fair Representation Act could transform representation in your state.
To create these maps, FairVote partnered with Kevin Baas, creator of the Auto-Redistrict program. The maps are computer-generated based on user-specified criteria. Because the maps are computer-generated, they cannot take into account communities of interest and other considerations that an independent redistricting commission would. Instead, the program attempted to draw districts that would keep counties intact. We do not claim that these are the actual districts that would be used under the Fair Representation Act. They are examples. We did not attempt to "put our thumb on the scales" to increase fairness in any of these. For more analysis of these districts, see FairVote's Fair Representation Act Report.
Partnering with 13 leading scholarly authorities on electoral reform and legislative functionality, FairVote conducted an in-depth assessment of 37 different structural reforms. Each scholar assessed the impact of each reform on 16 different criteria to assess how it would impact legislative functionality, electoral accountability, voter engagement, and openness of process. The reform at the heart of the Fair Representation Act, ranked choice voting in five-winner districts, was assessed to be the most impactful.
Monopoly Politics exposes the undemocratic and destructive nature of winner-take-all elections to elect "the people's house." Use the interactive map to learn more about our fair voting solution: a plan to combine existing congressional districts into a smaller number of multi-winner "super districts," each electing between three and five Members by ranked choice voting. Read comprehensive analyses about the impact of reform, and descriptions of House elections as they are and as they could be in all 50 states.
The Fair Representation Act Report outlines how multi-winner ranked choice voting will transform the U.S. House of Representatives. Using the model established by the Fair Representation Act, the report simulates the impact of multi-winner ranked choice voting in maps drawn by independent commissions with district maps drawn by the Autoredistrict computer program. It includes a report on the impact on each individual state as well as analysis of the overall impact in making elections more competitive and representative.
Papers and Articles
Resources and Handouts
Here is a video that explains how ranked choice voting works in multi-winner districts:
Endorsers of the Fair Representation Act
We've just begun compiling a list of official endorsers of the Fair Representation Act. Here is an opening list of endorsing congressional members, individuals and organizations.
Individuals & Organizations:
If your organization would like to add it's name in support, please contact Drew Spencer Penrose at email@example.com.
Political polarization is higher than ever, and research shows that having more women in office will reduce the dysfunction and lack of collaboration crippling our legislative bodies. Ranked choice voting and multi-winner districts will move the United States to political parity faster. It couldn't be more imperative that we create more opportunities for women to run and win.
- Anne Moses, Founder and President of IGNITE
Americans across the political spectrum are growing increasingly frustrated with our system that offers binary choices and privileges the ideological extremes. Third Way applauds the introduction of the Fair Representation Act, which would be a major step toward empowering the full spectrum of American voters in Congressional elections. Under its proposed system, voters would know that they are choosing their elected officials, rather than politicians picking their voters. And liberals, conservatives, and moderates alike would be able to vote with both their head and their heart by ranking their choices, preventing the concern that the candidate of their choice will be a spoiler. Reforms like those in the Fair Representation Act would begin to address the simmering anger at our political system which boiled over in the last election and ensure that our democracy truly represents the variety of perspectives in our country.
--Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, VP for Social Policy & Politics
If we want to stop gerrymandering, and move beyond constant litigation over how lines are drawn, we must rethink the way we do districting itself. That’s why the Fair Representation Act, recently introduced before Congress by Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia and Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland creates such an exciting path forward.
--Anita Earls, Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice
With the Fair Representation Act, we'd end gerrymandering and ensure that everyone gets real representation in Congress. We support the Fair Representation Act and call on Congress to take action.
The Fair Representation Act would ensure every voter matters in every election and likely helps elect a representative no matter where they live. Congress would have new incentives to get its work done."
--Reihan Salam, Executive Editor of National Review
The Fair Representation Act would be a game changer for American politics. It would mean that everybody's vote counts. You don't have to live in a swing state, or a swing district in order to have your vote count. Everybody's vote will count equally after the FRA, and it would scramble the winner take all, zero-sum dynamics that are just tearing this country apart. Totally changes the incentives of politics. It will reduce polarization and partisanship, and give every person an equal voice in our politics.
--Lee Drutman, Senior Fellow at New America
The Fair Representation Act would allow all people to have a say in who represents them, regardless of party or race. This proposal is an important reform that would make our democracy work better.
--Justin Nelson, President of One Nation, One Vote
FairVote put out this press release on June 26th, 2017 regarding the introduction of the Fair Representation Act to Congress.
The Nation, June 26, 2017: Anita Earls, Executive Director for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in The Nation: "Could This Put an End to Gerrymandering?" and highlights the positive impact of the Fair Representation on voting Rights.
Vox, April 27, 2017: Lee Drutman of New America Foundation: "This Voting Reform Solves 2 of America's Biggest Political Problems" Article argues that Americans should not accept a system that conditions the power of their votes on where they live. It presents the Fair Representation Act as the most practical approach to proportional representation in the United States.
Slate, September 11, 2014: The National Review's Reihan Salam explains the case for reforming gerrymandering with ranked choice voting in multi-winner districts in "The Biggest Problem in American Politics"
New York Times, September 25, 2017: Times columnist Michelle Goldberg writes Tyranny of the Minority, includes a call for the Fair Representation Act as a means to transform our elections and avoid gerrymandering.
Boston Globe, July 12, 2017: "Letter to the Editor: Righting a skewed electoral system"
Martha Karchere writes a letter to the editor explaining that even neutral lines won’t be a solution because Americans have sorted themselves into politically homogeneous neighborhoods.
Roll Call, July 8, 2017:Voting Rights Battle Just Getting Underway"
Article is about two Democratic bills introduced in the U.S. House, one by Rep. John Lewis and the other by Rep Don Beyer. Rep. Beyer explains why the Fair Representation Act needs to be passed.
New America, February 16, 2016: "Political Dynamism”
Lee Drutman of New America Foundation writes a comprehensive report on promoting functional government, including multi-winner districts with ranked choice voting as a key component.
How You Can Get Involved
Sign our Petition
Congress is broken. Too often, politics is defined by unfair rules that make “the people’s house” unaccountable, ineffective, and disconnected from ordinary voters. Winner-take-all elections are leaving many voters unrepresented, and special interests are drawing districts to manipulate election outcomes. It’s time to put voters in charge. It’s time for fair elections that give Americans an effective and reflective Congress of, by, and for the people.
Sign the petition in support of the Fair Representation Act
Send a message to your Representative
How You Can Help in Your State
You can help promote fair representation statewide and locally today. State legislatures can help reform Congress by adopting interstate compacts for fair representation. You can also help to advocate for ranked choice voting in your city or state. You can also help to organize locally and spread the word.
Read: 11 Ways to Get Involved to Advance Ranked Choice Voting
All voters should be valued equally in presidential elections, no matter where they live. Our current Electoral College system, grounded in state laws which allocate electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, leads presidential candidates to concentrate their resources on voters in a handful of swing states, relegating the vast majority of the country to spectator status. Instead, we should elect the president by a national popular vote—and there's a state-based, constitutional way to do so: The National Popular Vote interstate compact.
Want To Take Action? Visit NationalPopularVote.com
The Constitution gives states full control over how they allocate their electoral votes. The current winner-take-all method, in which the winner of the statewide popular vote wins all of that state's electoral votes, is a choice—and states can choose differently. Under the National Popular Vote interstate compact, states choose to allocate their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC. This compact takes effect only when enough states sign on to guarantee that the national popular vote winner wins the presidency. That means states with a combined total of 270 electoral votes—a majority of the Electoral College—must join the compact for it to take effect.
The National Popular Vote plan has bipartisan support and has been introduced in all 50 state legislatures. To date, 10 states and DC have passed legislation to enter the compact for a combined total of 165 electoral votes, meaning the compact is over 60% of the way to activation.
FairVote supports the National Popular Vote plan to ensure that every vote for president is equally valued no matter where it is cast. FairVote's executive director Rob Richie co-authored Every Vote Equal, a book explaining how the National Popular Vote plan would work and why the United States urgently needs it, and a 2013 article in Presidential Studies Quarterly. FairVote regularly generates research and analysis about problems with current methods of allocating electoral votes and the promise of the National Popular Vote plan. Here are links to Rob's November 2016 appearances on Democracy Now, NPR's All Things Considered and NPR's On the Media. For more information and to find ways to get involved, contact National Popular Vote.
Endorsers of the NPV Plan
Formal endorsements of the National Popular Vote Plan include the following. Web-based versions of these endorsements can be found via the links provided.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) - Statement on the National Popular Vote
Asian American Action Fund (AAA-Fund) - AAA-Fund's endorsement of National Popular Vote
Brennan Center for Justice - Read a commentary from Brennan Executive Director Michael Waldman
Common Cause - Common Cause and several of its state branches have been active partners from the news conference announcing the plan in February 2006
- Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund
Demos - Statement
Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action - Statement
League of Women Voters US (LWV) - The organization endorsed NPV at its June 2010 National Convention. Statement
MassVOTE - Statement
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) - At its 2008 annual convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, the NAACP adopted a resolution (pdf, 54kb) in support of the proposition of a national popular vote for president in general and the National Popular Vote plan in particular. It won final approval of the NAACP board on October 17, 2008
National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) - In December 2006, the Judiciary Committee of the NBCSL unanimously adopted a resolution (pdf, 37kb) at its annual meeting in Jackson, Mississippi. It was adopted by acclamation on the floor
National Institute for Latino Policy (NILP) - The organization endorsed NPV in July 2010
National Latino Congreso (NLC) - NLC passed a resolution (pdf, 56kb) with overwhelming support of NPV at its September 2006 conference
National Popular Vote - Website
Progressive States - Issue page
Public Citizen - Statement
Sierra Club - In February 2009, the Sierra Club published its resolution and formal endorsement of NPV
U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) - U.S. PIRG released a press release in March, 2009 supporting NPV
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign - Backed 2009-2010 legislation, AB 751
The National Popular Vote plan has received wide support from newspapers around the country. Below are a few highlighted endorsements:
For a full list of editorial endorsements, visit the NPV website here.
Professors Support the National Popular Vote Plan
NPV also has the support of many professors of political science, government, election law, and related subjects. The following are individuals who have given FairVote their permission to list their names as endorsers of the following statement:
"We are current and retired professors who have taught political science, government, election law, or related subjects at colleges and universities in the United States. We support states entering into the National Popular Vote agreement for presidential elections."
John C. Berg, Professor of Government, Suffolk University
President, Northeast Political Science Association 2003-2004. Author of Unequal Struggle: Class, Gender, Race and Power in the US Congress
Ron Buckmire, Associate Professor of Mathematics, Occidental College
Author of a popular blog, also teaches classes in Occidental's Cultural Studies department
John M. Carey, Wentford Professor in the Social Sciences and Chair of the Department of Government, Dartmouth College
Author, Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics
Brian F. Crisp, Professor of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis
Author, Democratic Institutional Design
Thomas De Luca, Professor of Political Science and Director of International Studies Program, Fordham University
Author, Liars! Cheaters! Evildoers! Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics
Todd Donovan, Professor of Political Science, Western Washington University
Author, Reforming the Republic: Democratic Institutions for the New America
Paul Finkelman, Senior Fellow in the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism, University of Pennsylvania
Author of more than 200 scholarly articles and more than forty books, Paul Finkelman is a specialist in American legal history, race relations, slavery, and civil liberties.
James A. Gardner, Distinguished Professor of Civil Justice, Director of Jaeckle Center for Law and Democracy, SUNY Buffalo Law School
Author, Election Law in the American Political System
Steven Greene, Associate Professor of Political Science, North Carolina State University
Author, The Politics of Parenthood: Causes and Consequences of the Politicization of the American Family
Bob Holmes, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Clark Atlanta University
Formerly the Director of the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Clark Atlanta University. State Representative in the Georgia General Assembly, 1974-2008
Elijah B.Z. Kaminsky, Professor of Political Science Emertius, Arizona State University
Author, On the Comparison of Presidential and Parliamentary Governments
Alexander Keyssar, Professor of History and Social Policy, Kennedy School of Government-Harvard University
Author of award-winning book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States
Peter Levine, Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Tufts University
Director of CIRCLE: The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement
Arend Lijphart, Research Professor Emeritus, UC San Diego
Former President of the American Political Science Association. Author of over a dozen books, including Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries
Michael McDonald, Associate Professor of Government and Political Science
Creator of website United State Elections Project, a valuable resource for academics and the media on voter turnout
Lorenzo Morris, Professor of Political Science, Howard University
Author, The Social and Political Implications of the Jesse Jackson Presidential Campaign
Jack Nagel, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
Author, Descriptive Analysis of Power. Chair of the University of Pennsylvania's Political Science Department from 2000-2003. Wrote an op-ed in 2011 endorsing NPV
Brendan Nyhan, Assistant Professor of Government, Dartmouth College
Author, All the President's Spin (New York Times bestselling book)
Perry J. Mitchell, Professor of Political Science (Retired), Northern Virginia Community College
Democratic Primary Candidate, Delaware State Senate, 2010
Jamin Raskin, Professor of Law and Director of Law and Government Program, American University Washington College of Law
Bestselling Author, Overruling Democracy: the Supreme Court versus the American People. State Senator in Maryland. See his blog supporting NPV on the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy website here
Howard Scarrow, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, SUNY Stony Brook
Author, Comparative Political Analysis: An Introduction
David Schultz, Adjunct Professor, Hamline University School of Law
Author, Lights, Camera, Campaign!: Media, Politics, and Political Advertising
Matthew Shugart, Professor of Political Science, UC Davis
Author, Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics
Rogers Smith, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylania
Author, Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama's America
Robert Smith, Professor of Political Science, San Francisco State University
Associate Editor, National Political Science Review
Leonard Steinhorn, Professor of Public Communication and Affiliate Professor of History, American University
Author, The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy
Todd Swanstrom, Professor of Community Collaboration and Public Policy Administration, University of Missouri-St. Louis
Author, Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-first Century
Rein Taagepera, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, UC Irvine
Author, Predicting Party Sizes: The Logic of Simple Electoral Systems
Caroline Tolbert, Professor of Political Science, University of Iowa
Author, We the People
Joseph F. Zimmerman, Professor of Political Science, University of Albany Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy
Author, Contemporary American Federalism: The Growth of National Power and co-author, Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote
What is the National Popular Vote Plan?
The National Popular Vote (NPV) plan guarantees election of the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The NPV plan is a state statute in the form of an interstate compact. It creates an agreement among states to award all of their electoral votes collectively to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote. This agreement takes effect only once the participating states together hold a majority of electoral votes (270 of 538)--guaranteeing that the winner of the national popular vote will win an Electoral College majority.
Passing NPV will guarantee election of the national popular vote winner once the compact has been joined by enough states to make it decisive for determining the outcome of future elections. Until that point, a state’s current rules apply.
State legislators have introduced NPV legislation in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. NPV legislation has now been enacted by 11 jurisdictions possessing 165 electoral votes, or 61% of the 270 electoral votes needed to activate the compact.
Frequently Asked Questions
To learn more, see the FAQ's below and the list of endorsers. For more information on the National Popular Vote plan, including weekly updates and ways to get involved, please visit NationalPopularVote.com.
Why isn’t a constitutional amendment required to change the method of electing the president?
According to the U.S. Constitution (Article II, Section I), state legislatures decide how to apportion their state’s electoral votes, a power that the Supreme Court has termed “plenary” (absolute). Congress cannot override this right beyond resolving certain administrative questions like the timing of when the Electoral College casts its votes and when states provide their official presidential vote totals.
States have often exercised their power over how to allocate electoral votes, particularly during the lifetime of our founding generation. Most states today use the winner-take-all unit rule by which they award all electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote. Few states used the unit rule in our early elections, however, and it did not become the norm until a half-century after the approval of the Constitution. Even today, Nebraska and Maine choose to apportion their votes differently.
The U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 10) also establishes that states can enter into binding interstate agreements. There are hundreds of such compacts, including ones establishing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and protecting states’ access to the water of the Colorado River. Many compacts require congressional approval, but others that do not infringe upon federal powers, such as the National Popular Vote plan, do not require it. Even if congressional approval ultimately is sought for the National Popular Vote plan, that approval would take place after the compact is approved by sufficient states to enact it.
Wouldn’t NPV change a system “given to us by the Founding Fathers?"
The Founding Fathers did not design the system of allocating electoral votes currently used in most states. Rather, they established the Electoral College without any instructions on how states should use it. In the first presidential election in 1788-89, only five states allowed citizens to vote for the president in any form. In 1800, when Thomas Jefferson won our fourth presidential election, only two states allocated electoral votes based on the now-dominant winner-take-all unit rule in which all electoral votes went to the candidate winning the statewide popular vote.
Adoption of the unit rule in the following decades was driven by partisan motives. The unit rule helped each state’s majority party by maximizing support for that state’s favored candidate. Once enough states adopted the unit rule, any state using another method risked hurting its favored presidential candidate. If states controlled by one party used the unit rule and states controlled by another party allocated electoral votes by congressional district, then the first party would gain a national advantage. In short, nearly all states were forced into the unit rule by the actions of other states and by partisan calculations – ones that will continue to govern states’ decisions about allocating electoral votes until enactment of NPV.
Didn’t the Founding Fathers get everything right the first time?
Leaders in our nation’s founding generation almost certainly would have been dismayed by how the Electoral College system operates today, as it results in most states and the unique interests of their voters being ignored. There is every reason to believe they would have chosen to act to fix the problem.
Evidence of their willingness to reform the Electoral College comes from the 12th amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1804. In the first four presidential elections, presidential candidates ran without official running mates for vice-president. Each elector cast two votes. If gaining support from a majority of electors, the candidate earning the most votes became president, while the candidate with the second-most votes became vice-president. In 1796, John Adams won the presidency, but his electors withheld just enough of their second votes for his running mate Thomas Pinckney to allow Adams’ opponent Thomas Jefferson to finish second and become vice-president.
In 1800, backers of Thomas Jefferson wanted to avoid such a result. Every Jefferson elector also voted for his running mate Aaron Burr. The result was an Electoral College tie, which threw the choice for president into the U.S. House. It took days of votes in the House before Jefferson won. In the wake of these failures of the original Electoral College system, Congress and the states approved the 12th Amendment that established official running mates and limited electors to one vote.
Leading thinkers at the Constitutional Convention like James Madison preferred a national popular vote for president, but accepted the Electoral College for political and administrative reasons that no longer exist today. For example, southern states with large numbers of slaves knew they would be big winners with the Electoral College system. Slaves were denied voting rights, as were nearly all women, racial minorities, and citizens not owning property, but were still counted for the purposes of determining a state’s number of congressional seats and electoral votes. In 1800, Virginia had fewer free citizens than Pennsylvania and New York, but had more electoral votes due to slaves representing 39% of its population. It is no coincidence that four of our first five presidents were from Virginia.
Over the years, states have taken the lead in bringing more democracy to presidential elections, with all states since 1876 awarding electoral votes based on popular elections and states regularly taking the lead in expand the franchise in presidential elections. Now that there is a roadmap to secure elections based on a popular vote for president, states have every reason to take this additional step to reflect the goals of a representative democracy.
Does the National Popular Vote plan eliminate the Electoral College?
Under NPV, the Electoral College would remain the actual institution that elects the president, but would play a secondary role to the all-important national popular vote. Currently, the Electoral College serves to ratify the separate popular votes of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, with 48 states awarding electoral votes to the electors associated with the winner of the popular vote in that state. Under NPV, the Electoral College would instead ratify the national popular vote by having participating states award votes to the electors associated with the slate of the national popular vote winner. The night of the election, all eyes would be fixed on the national popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, not the artificial “race to 270.” Voters seeing the popular vote tally rise on election night would know that one of those votes was their own. They would know that the candidate with the most votes wins.
For those who argue that the electors should play a meaningful deliberative role, note that today electors are simply party loyalists who support their party’s candidate.
What if a participating state tries to leave the Compact during or after an election?
Federal law already prohibits states from changing their laws governing that year’s allocation of electors after Election Day. As a formal interstate compact, NPV adds the additional protection of the Impairments Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 10, Clause 1), which prohibits states from dishonoring interstate compacts. The NPV compact includes a “blackout” period between July 20 of a presidential election year and the inauguration on January 20 of the following year. The terms of the compact do not allow individual states to withdraw from a compact during this time. This six-month blackout period covers when parties typically hold national nominating conventions, the general election, the state certification process, the actual meeting of the Electoral College in December, the counting of the electoral votes by Congress on January 6, and the inauguration of the President and Vice President for the new term on January 20.
Once NPV is activated, it is unlikely that states will withdraw from the compact. The public overwhelmingly supports a national popular vote for president and opposes efforts clearly designed to “game” the system. An individual state is unlikely to be able to undermine the compact because the number of electoral votes in participating states likely will continue to rise beyond the Electoral College majority of 270 votes.
Will NPV be undercut by “faithless electors” who vote against the popular will?
No. Slates of electors are supplied by the presidential candidates and consist of individuals who strongly support the candidate and their party. The likelihood of faithless electors would not increase under NPV because the electors casting votes in states participating in the NPV agreement would have been selected by the winning candidate.
If a state chooses not to pass NPV, will its votes be discounted?
NPV would ensure that the presidential candidate receiving the most votes throughout the country would be elected president. The votes in every state and jurisdiction allocating electoral votes would be counted to determine the winner. Whether or not a state enters the NPV agreement, its voters would have a vote equal to everyone else's in selecting the president. For example, if Ohio does not approve the compact, the votes cast in Ohio would still be part of the national popular vote totals that would determine the winner of the presidency. Ohio voters would be treated the same as all other voters.
A nonparticipating state could choose not to hold a statewide popular vote for president and therefore not generate vote totals that would be part of the national popular vote, but such a move would be strongly opposed by that state’s voters – both because voters in state after state overwhelming support a national popular vote for president and because once NPV is enacted, every state will want its voters to help determine the outcome of the election.
Until NPV guarantees election of the national popular vote winner, are states that have adopted it stuck apportioning their vote to the national winner?
No. NPV would only go into effect when it is ratified by enough states to make it decisive in electing the president – meaning that participating states collectively hold a majority of Electoral College votes. Until that happens, states continue to apportion their electoral votes according to their current rules. For example, during the 2008 election, Maryland, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey had already enacted NPV. Because their total electoral votes were less than an Electoral College majority of 270, however, the compact was not triggered and those states continued to apportion electors as they had done previously.
Isn't changing the U.S. Constitution the real answer?
FairVote is among a number of leaders and organizations that support both the National Popular Vote plan and a constitutional amendment providing for direct election of the president. They are complementary positions. At the same time, it is clear that, as of 2009, there is no consensus on the form of a constitutional amendment to establish a direct election and there is no energy on Capitol Hill to advance an amendment. Furthermore, states historically have acted on their power to expand democracy in presidential elections without waiting for a constitutional amendment: it was states that took action to ensure popular elections within states for elector allocation, and that first expanded suffrage rights to include women, African Americans, Native Americans and citizens who did not own property. An amendment needs to be ratified by three-quarters of states and two-thirds of each chamber of Congress. Even though an overwhelming majority of Americans support a national popular vote for election of the president, a small minority of the country can block reform if only pursued in the form of amendment.
Even those who prefer a constitutional amendment have every reason to support NPV as a means of drawing attention to the failings of the Electoral College and illuminating public support for altering the system. Some NPV backers indeed strongly prefer it to an amendment given that NPV is constitutional and gives states more flexibility in the future to change how they want to organize presidential elections.
Why change the current Electoral College system at all?
The Electoral College allows a President to be elected when finishing second or even third in the national popular vote. So-called “wrong winners” became president in 2000 (George W. Bush), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison), 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes) and 1824 (John Quincy Adams). We have had several near wrong winners, including in 2004 when a shift of less than 60,000 votes in Ohio would have given John Kerry a national victory over George Bush despite his national popular vote deficit of three and a half million votes.
Read about all of these elections here.
Even when the Electoral College does not elect a losing candidate, however, it makes losers of a large and growing number of Americans in every single election. The winner-take-all unit rule governing the Electoral College in most states leads candidates to ignore the vast majority of Americans as their campaigns focus nearly all their resources on a handful of “battleground” states that, because they are too close to call, have the power to determine the election. In 2008, more than 98% of all campaign spending and all campaign events after Labor Day were in 15 states representing barely a third of the population – and nearly every remaining state was largely ignored in 2004 and 2000 as well. The number of battleground states has steadily declined in recent decades, resulting in candidates focusing on an increasingly narrow band of American voters and rendering meaningless most potential grassroots involvement in so-called “spectator states.”
Doesn’t the current Electoral College system nearly always elect the popular vote winner?
Some Electoral College defenders dismiss “wrong winners” (meaning elections where the national popular vote winner loses) as aberrations. But one out of every 12 presidential elections since the Civil War has experienced a wrong winner, and there were several additional close calls, including victories by Woodrow Wilson in 1916, Harry Truman in 1948, Jimmy Carter in 1976, and George Bush in 2004. Read about the close calls here. Even Barack Obama’s victory by nine and a half million votes in 2008 would have been trumped by a shift of 527,864 (flipping 99 electoral votes) in the right combination of states.
The problem of popular vote reversals is particularly serious in light of today’s more closely divided electorate. American politics is in a period of narrow division between the major parties. Since 1984, every presidential race has been won by less than 10% of the national popular vote. In contrast, a majority of elections between 1952 and 1984 were won by margins greater than10%. Of the last 15 presidential elections won by less than 15%, three (one out of five) had popular vote reversals: in 1888 and the particularly pivotal elections of 1876 and 2000. There easily could have been more reversals, with a shift of fewer than 80,000 votes in the right combination of states able to reverse the winner in five presidential elections since World War II alone.
Wouldn’t it be better for states to allocate electoral votes by proportional allocation or congressional district?
States adopted the winner-take-all unit rule primarily due to partisan incentives – their leaders did not want other states to gain an advantage for their favored candidates. Unlike NPV, which creates a level playing field, changing a state’s rules for allocating electoral votes nearly always is suspect from a partisan perspective. Such “reform” efforts are typically led by those whose party would secure a national advantage if that particular state were to divide its electoral votes rather than award all of them to the statewide popular vote winner.
As FairVote demonstrated in its report Fuzzy Math: Wrong Way Reforms for Allocating Electoral College Votes, allocating votes by congressional district and proportional allocation both result in far less fair presidential elections than election of the president by a national popular vote. Under allocation by congressional district, fewer than one in ten congressional districts would be close enough to be truly contested by the campaigns. The current partisan landscape also would provide a huge edge to Republican candidates in close elections making the plan a non-starter for Democrats; in 2000, for example, George Bush would have won the Electoral College by 38 electoral votes under the congressional district system applied nationwide, even while losing the national popular vote. Read about the current Maine and Nebraska system here.
Proportional allocation doesn’t have the same degree of partisan bias, but it would share the problem of keeping most voters as spectators in presidential races. Political activity under this reform would concentrate on the states where a shift in popular support of 3% or less would gain or protect an electoral vote – and most states would be outside of this range.
Doesn’t the Electoral College protect small states?
The current use of the Electoral College hurts the great majority of those voters who live in small states because their states are completely ignored in presidential campaigns. Small states tend to have clear partisan tilts that lead the candidates to decide that no amount of campaign activity in that state will affect the result in that state. Of the 18 states with the smallest populations, 10 experienced absolutely no television ads or candidate visits with public events during the peak season of 2008 campaigns. Eleven of the 12 smallest states did not have a single campaign visit.
Furthermore, statisticians have demonstrated that voters in small states do not get extra attention, even though their states have more electoral votes per capita. Additionally, voters in large competitive states are more influential than voters in small competitive states because of the winner-take-all unit rule. Due to the unit rule, competitive big states have far more electoral votes in play, meaning that a shift of 1,000 votes in a big state can result in a far greater gain in electoral votes than a comparable swing of 1,000 votes in a small state. This statistical reality explains why Delaware and other small states filed a lawsuit in 1966 seeking to challenge big states’ use of the unit rule.
Presidential elections should not favor a special class of battleground voters over other Americans. In a national popular vote election, the unit of influence would be the individual voter, whether this voter lives in a small, big or medium state. Every vote would be equal, thereby forcing viable candidates and parties to be responsive to all voters.
Doesn’t the Electoral College encourage candidates to campaign in more parts of the country, including both large and small states?
No. Anyone who lived outside of a battleground state in 2004 or 2008 could tell you how much they and their neighbors mattered in the 2004 presidential race. As FairVote’s Who Picks the President? report shows, the candidates and their backers completely ignored a majority of states and a majority of people. The 2004 election concentrated almost exclusively on a dozen states that were home to less than 28% of the electorate and relatively concentrated in the Midwest. The 2008 general election saw a similar focus, with more than 98% of campaign spending and events after Labor Day focused on 15 states representing barely a third of the nation – a sharp contrast to the Democratic presidential primary contest that took place everywhere that year due to different rules making it valuable for the candidates to contest every state.
While the current Electoral College system keeps candidates from attempting to maximize vote totals in their strongest areas, it also eliminates any incentive that either major party candidate might have to visit those areas at all. Similarly, they have no incentive to campaign in any states where they are sure to lose or win. The only states that matter are the ones that happen to be close.
Does the current Electoral College system encourage face-to-face grassroots campaigning over television-driven mass media appearances?
No. Advertising is going to be a part of modern politics, but the lesson of recent presidential races is that old-fashioned get-out-the-vote activities are essential to success. As long as there are Americans who are willing and able to get involved on the grassroots level—knocking on the doors of neighbors, etc—then there will be grassroots campaigning in the United States. The candidate who can inspire the most of that campaigning will have a significant advantage. As to money, candidates already are trying to raise as much money as they can. There simply will be a more equitable distribution of their campaign resources, in turn creating more incentives for parties and candidates to establish over time new efforts promoting participation at the grassroots level.
Would a national popular vote undermine federalism, protection of minority rights, and our status as a republic?
No. The question of state rights, federalism and republican government relates to the respective powers of the presidency, the Congress, the states and the people rather than the method of election for our elected offices. We are a representative democracy, not a direct democracy, but when electing our leaders, we should aspire to fair elections based on one-person, one-vote – combined with clearly defined rights and separation of powers, such fair electoral rules are what protects minorities within our system. Underscoring this point, in January 2012 the Department of Justice pre-cleared California's entry into the NPV compact under Section Five of the Voting Rights Act.
The use of the winner-take-all rule in 48 states is simply an electoral device, not a meaningful expression of state differences. Its negative impact on most states in comparison to a national popular vote is very real. The fact that most states and their citizens today receive no attention from campaigns undermines the goals of federalism. If every vote counted equally, the people of every state would matter, and their views and interests would matter. As it is, the only people earning attention from the campaigns are those who happen to live in competitive states. George Bush’s campaign in 2004 was the best-funded in history, but it didn’t waste a dime on polling the views of a single person living in more than 30 states during the entire campaign. When voters don’t matter, they have little power to protect their interests and the interests of their state.
Wouldn’t it be too hard to conduct a national recount in a very close election?
Current statewide winner-take-all unit rule elections significantly increase the probability of a contentious recount due to a smaller margin of victory and larger number of elections – by as much as five times according to a 2008 paper by University of Pennsylvania professor Jack Nagel. Neither the 2000 nor 2004 presidential election was remotely close enough for a national recount, but the 2000 election hung on the result in Florida and the outcome of the 2004 election would have changed with a shift of fewer than 60,000 votes in Ohio. An extremely close state election can be hard to finalize in time for the December meeting of the Electoral College, yet such a close election in a state is far more likely than a razor-thin vote in the national popular vote.
FairVote’s 2007 survey of 7,645 statewide elections from 1980 to 2006 determined that statewide elections resulted in a recount once in every 332 elections (23 out of 7,645). Applied to national presidential elections, this number would mean we might have to conduct a national presidential election recount once every 1,328 years. Even that number is likely too high, however, as FairVote’s data demonstrated that the percentage of the vote changing during a recount declined as the size of the electorate grew. In modern elections there are relatively few errors. When an administrative error is found that affects 100 votes in an election of 5,000 votes, that error changes 2.0% of votes. But that same error affecting 100 votes in an election of 100,000 votes only affects 0.1% of votes.
More fundamentally, in the 21st century, the United States has no excuse for conducting elections that cannot be recounted. Certainly, large population states like California and Texas do not shy away from statewide popular elections out of fear of running recounts. Furthermore, Congress has the authority to establish standards for recounts in the highly unlikely event one were needed.
Doesn’t the current Electoral College system protect American stability?
No. In upcoming elections, one could just as well flip a coin as use the Electoral College to decide the winner if the popular vote margin is inside a still-comfortable 500,000 votes. Al Gore lost the 2000 election despite a comfortable national popular vote advantage of a half million votes, while George Bush would have lost in 2004 if his national popular vote advantage had been reduced evenly across the states to about a half million votes. Furthermore, state-by-state election results where tiny shifts in one state can change who wins the national election always will spark controversies and legal disputes where the courts must intervene, as took place in 2000 and almost did in 2004.
The Electoral College has a provision that is an accident waiting to happen without reform: when no candidate wins an absolute majority in the Electoral College the U.S. House picks the president (with the winner needing to win a majority of the vote in 26 state congressional delegations) and the Senate picks the Vice-president. In 1948 and 1968, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace won significant numbers of southern states and their electoral votes; small popular vote shifts in a few states would have put them in a position to bargain after the election. This happened in 1876, when Rutherford Hayes was willing to allow states to trample on African-Americans’ civil rights in exchange for the White House. Even in 2004, a shift of fewer than 21,000 votes would have created an Electoral College tie and thrown the election into Congress.
Using such an opaque and controversial means of picking the president would hardly bring Americans back together after a hotly contested national election. It is a mistake to assume that our nation’s relative stability is founded on our current Electoral College rules – just as our stability did not depend on indirect election of Senators or denial of women’s suffrage prior to our amending the Constitution just a century ago.
Does the Electoral College’s tendency to magnify the size of a popular vote victory provide a clearer mandate to the president?
No. The average American does not, as a rule, pay much attention to the Electoral College, barely understanding how it functions and generally not liking it. Gubernatorial races are instructive: winners receive mandates, period, with big winners getting bigger mandates. Because he only won 43% of the national popular vote that year, Bill Clinton’s large Electoral College margin in 1992 hardly gave him a resounding mandate. His first two years, in fact, were marked by rocky debates over health care, energy and urban development in 1993-1994. Regardless, a president who wins a razor-thin national popular vote majority, but a lopsided electoral vote count should not be encouraged to run roughshod over the large minority who voted the other way.
Doesn’t the Electoral College prevent third-party candidates winning with a low share of the popular vote?
The Electoral College has a neutral impact on third party candidates. The Electoral College is not the reason why third party candidates and independents have such low odds in presidential elections: rather it is because only one candidate wins, which favors candidates who can draw on large numbers of votes. Today, every sitting governor is a member of a major party, and in nearly 1,000 gubernatorial elections in all 50 states since World War II, no governor has won with less than 35% of the vote. In 1992, Ross Perot did not win any electoral votes despite earning 19% of the national popular vote, but he would have easily won the presidency and a majority in the Electoral College by doubling his share of the national vote to 38%.
Isn’t NPV a ploy to make it impossible for Republicans to win the presidency?
Support for a national popular for president is strong among Republican voters, Democratic voters and independents. In the past four decades it has won support from hundreds of leaders of both major parties, from Gerald Ford, George Herbert Walker Bush, Richard Nixon and Bob Dole to Birch Bayh, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, John McCain, and Barack Obama.
The controversial 2000 presidential election won by Republican George W. Bush despite his loss in the national popular vote has inspired more Republican leaders to defend the Electoral College and more Democratic leaders to oppose it. But the fact is, a national popular vote provides a level playing field that is fair to both major parties, both of which have shown an equal ability to carry the national popular vote in elections over the short, medium and long-term. For example, Democrats and Republicans have split the national popular vote in the past eight presidential elections back to 1980, past 12 presidential elections back to 1964, past 16 elections back to 1948, past 22 elections back to 1920 and past 26 elections back to 1904. Democrat Lyndon Johnson won a large popular vote landslide in 1964, but so did Republicans Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Isn’t it true that without the Electoral College, the candidates would only care about California, Texas, New York, and major cities?
No. The United States is a large nation. California, New York and Texas are our most populous states, but even if a candidate (quite unrealistically) won every single vote cast in those states, he or she would still have barely 25% of the vote. Indeed, a candidate could win every single vote cast in the ten biggest states and still not have a majority of the national popular vote. Because big states are geographically dispersed and every vote is equal, any candidate trying to win a majority of national vote must try to win votes everywhere, and volunteers excited by that candidacy have every incentive to be active right in their own neighborhood, knowing that any new vote cast for their candidate will count the same as any vote cast anywhere else. In contrast, it is at least statistically possible under the current system that a candidate could win the presidency by stringing together wins in all the largest states while doing very poorly everywhere else.
The great majority of Americans live in metropolitan regions where events and advertising in a local television market will reach them. But it would be folly to ignore the remaining voters, as can be shown by examining closely contested campaigns in states. For example, John Kerry won the urban areas in Ohio in 2004 and put great attention in those areas, but George Bush’s campaign mobilized many voters in the rural and “ex-urban” counties that led to his statewide victory.
In 2009 FairVote analyzed what would have happened in the 2008 election if voter turnout had risen generally by 10% in the 11 most populous states. It also analyzed the impact of only Democrat Barack Obama’s vote total rising by 10% in those states. In the first case, Obama would have needed to carry 50.15% of the popular vote in the rest of the country to maintain his same overall share of the national popular vote – down just 0.22% from the 50.37% he actually won in those states. In the second, highly unrealistic case of only his vote rising by 10% in the large popular states, he still could have afforded to have his share in the remaining states decline by only 3.16%.
The bottom line: When every vote counts the same, every vote matters. You can’t write off voters and expect to win the presidency.
For more information, the National Popular Vote website (www.nationalpopularvote.com) has an excellent and in-depth section discussing the myths surrounding NPV and the Electoral College. Also, please refer to FairVote's other sections on the National Popular Vote. Questions can be directed to info(at)fairvote.org.
FairVote's Policy Guide includes one-page policy briefs for key electoral reform proposals, along with the following resources:
- a model statutory language,
- sample letters of support, and
- related statements or text (when available)
These proposals represent the cutting edge in reforms for expanding suffrage, enhancing voter access, and protecting the right to a meaningful vote at all levels of government.
If you have any questions or comments relating to FairVote's Policy Guide, please contact our legal director Drew Spencer at dspencer [at] fairvote [dot] org or (301) 270-4616.
Extending Voting Rights to 16- and 17-Year-Old Citizens
State and local policy. Localities can expand voting and enhance civic engagement for all citizens by joining the practice of several nations and other jurisdictions in enfranchising otherwise-eligible voters when they turn 16.
17-Year-Old Primary and Caucus Voting
State and political party policy. If a voter will be eligible to vote in the general election, they should be able to vote in the primary or caucus that will nominate candidates to be on their ballots. An increasing number of states and political parties have therefore extended voting rights in primaries and caucuses to 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the date of the next general election.
Election Day Holiday
State and federal policy. Federal and state law should mandate that our most important Election Days be observed as holidays. That way, people would be more able to vote at any time of day, not just before or after work.
Restoring Voting Rights to Citizens with Past Felony Convictions
State policy. It should be easy for people with felony convictions to reintegrate into lawful society once they have completed their sentences. States can facilitate this process by simplifying the process of voting rights restoration and voter registration for people with felony convictions.
Automatic Voter Registration
State policy. Automatic voter registration is the norm in many modern democracies. Rather than forbidding eligible voters from voting until they "opt-in" by registering, eligible voters should be able to vote by default, with the ability to opt-out if they choose to.
Youth Voter Pre-Registration
State policy.Otherwise-eligible voters should be able to pre-register to vote before they reach voting age. That way they can will automatically be able to vote as soon as they become eligible.
Automatic Voter Registration at High School and Colleges
State and local policy. It is easy for high schools - that already have their students' information - to ensure that all of their students are preregistered for voting. That way, more prospective voters are registered as soon as they become eligible to vote.
Post-Election Audit Standards
State policy. Risk-limiting post-election audits allow voters to be confident in the accuracy of election results. When done well, they can be easy to administer, requiring variable levels of auditing depending on how close the election margins are, up to a full recount in the closest elections.
Ranked Choice Ballots for Military and Overseas Voters
State and local policy. Military and overseas voters can participate in an election and its corresponding runoff at once, preventing them from being disenfranchised when two elections do not allow sufficient time for ballots to be mailed and returned.
RCV Ballots for Military and Overseas Voters: Presidential Nominating Contests
State policy. By the time military voters have received, filled out, and mailed back their ballots in presidential nominating contests, one or more candidates may have dropped out of the race. By allowing them to use ranked ballots, they can ensure that their vote will count for their favorite candidate that is still in the running.
Usability Testing for Ballots
State, local and federal policy. Voters can be inadvertently disenfranchised by incorrectly filling out a confusing ballot. Ballot designs should be tested to ensure that they are usable in advance of their implementation.
A Constitutional Right to Vote
Federal policy. The right to vote is the foundation of democracy, yet the U.S. Constitution contains no explicit right to vote. The Constitution should be amended to explicitly grant the affirmative right to vote to every citizen of voting age.
Text of H.J.Res. 44
Reasonable Ballot Access
State and federal policy. Voters are denied meaningful choices when the candidates they prefer most are kept off of the ballot entirely. States should pass commonsense ballot access requirements for all candidates at every stage of the election.
High School Civics Education
State and local policy. Students who are given a thorough civics education are more likely to become active participants in the democratic process. Surveys show that students who participate in civics education are more likely to show an interest in politics.
ALICE Model Civics in Schools
Mock Legislature in Capitals
State and local policy. The best way for students to understand how their elected officials pass laws is to participate in a mock legislative session.
State policy. Districts Plus couples the election of state legislators from districts with additional "accountability seats" to ensure that when most voters favor candidates of one political party, that is the party that actually wins the most seats overall.
Non-Partisan Ballot Labels
State and local policy. Voters are more likely to participate in non-partisan races in an informed way when their ballots include not only the candidates' names, but also information about those candidates' views and associations.
Presidential Nomination Reform
State and political party policy. The ability of states to decide their own schedules in presidential nominating contests leads to earlier and earlier primary and caucus dates and a lack of rational structure in the nomination process. States can work with parties to establish a more sensible plan for presidential candidate nominations based on randomized, rotating primary and caucus dates.
Ranked Choice Voting for At-Large Local Elections
Local policy. Cities can have fair and representative elections in at-large contests by using ranked choice voting. Ranked choice voting allows nearly all voters to elect a candidate of choice while empowering them to honestly rank candidates in order of preference.
State Voting Rights Act
State policy. States can protect minority voting rights and keep cases in state court by passing their own state Voting Rights Acts that allow lawsuits against places that dilute the votes of racial minority populations.
Top Four with Ranked Choice Voting
State and local policy. Places that want to open primary elections to all voters can do so without closing off their general elections to meaningful competition. This can be achieved by using an all-partisan preliminary election that advances four candidates to the general election and conducts that general election by ranked choice voting.
Voting is an American principle and a basic democratic right that should be protected, promoted, and practiced, which is why many people are surprised to learn that the U.S. Constitution provides no explicit right to vote. This leaves voting rights vulnerable to the whims of politicians, and some citizens with fewer rights than others.
More than a decade ago, FairVote became the leading institutional voice calling for the establishment of an explicit individual right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. We believe that a grassroots movement to establish such an amendment would go a long way in ending the "voting wars" that plague us today. FairVote continues to serve as a trusted resource in support of activists, organizations, and elected officials working toward a right to vote amendment. Through our Promote Our Vote project, we work to build widespread support for a right to vote amendment, while advocating for pro-suffrage innovations at the local level.
Why We Need a Right to Vote Amendment
Even as the rising American electorate gains momentum, new regressive laws, rulings, and maneuvers are threatening voting rights without facing the strict scrutiny that would come with an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), stripping the Justice Department of the powers it had for five decades to curb racial discrimination in voting. The Election Assistance Commission was left without commissioners for years and frequently faces bills in Congress that would end its existence entirely. Many schools skip civics education, contributing to the decline in voter turnout in local and primary elections.
Enshrining an explicit right to vote in the Constitution would guarantee the voting rights of every citizen of voting age, ensure that every vote is counted correctly, and defend against attempts to effectively disenfranchise eligible voters. It would empower Congress to enact minimum electoral standards to guarantee a higher degree of legitimacy, inclusivity, and consistency across the nation, and give our courts the authority to keep politicians in check when they try to game the vote for partisan reasons.
The Constitution has been amended 27 times. Excluding the Bill of Rights, 7 of the last 17 constitutional amendments have dealt directly with expanding the franchise and improving the way citizens vote.
Contrary to popular belief, there is not an affirmative right to vote in the U.S. Constitution
While the U.S. Constitution bans the restriction of voting based on race, sex and age, it does not explicitly and affirmatively state that all U.S. citizens have a right to vote. The Supreme Court ruled in Bush v. Gore in 2000 that citizens do not have the right to vote for electors for president. States control voting policies and procedures, and as a result, we have a patchwork of inconsistent voting rules run independently by 50 states, 3,067 counties and over 13,000 voting districts, all separate and unequal.
Millions of Americans are permanently barred from voting
Approximately 5 million Americans convicted of felonies who have already completed their sentences are permanently disenfranchised. Fourteen states do not have an automatic restoration process in place for returning citizens who have completed their sentences. Some states like Florida leave re-enfranchisement decisions to the discretion of public officials, discretion which could be exercised arbitrarily or used for political gain.
However, it is not only ex-felons who face difficulty registering to vote. Americans living overseas have trouble registering in their home district, because their state may not consider them residents anymore. Many college students attempting to register at their college precinct have faced voter intimidation or were simply refused the ability to register to vote. Such obstacles are not only arbitrary, but in many cases politically motivated.
The Right to Vote Amendment will guarantee all American citizens at least 18 years of age a constitutionally protected individual right to vote. Much like the rights to speech and religion, a constitutionally protected right to vote will be difficult to limit without showing a strong need for the limitation to exist.
State authority over voting creates unnecessary voting difficulties
Voting should be a simple process in which any registered citizen can easily participate. However, this is not always the case. Voter identification and registration requirements, as well as the machines that voters use, vary widely between states. States and counties design their own ballots, pursue their own voter education, and have near-complete authority over their state voting policies and procedures. With over 10,000 different jurisdictions, voters and potential voters are much more likely to cast a counted vote in some states, some counties, and some areas of the country than others, simply based on the difference in standards for each election. Elections in many states are rife with lost and incorrectly counted votes, and many voters are incorrectly told that they cannot cast a ballot.
Since voting is regulated by the states, there is little the national government can do if voters are intimidated or harassed at the polling booth. With the Supreme Court's 2013 decision to strike down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, and Congress's unwillingness to act to restore key components of the Act, a Right to Vote Amendment is needed to further enforce voting rights.
Congress is powerless to set national standards
At present, Congress can take no action to formally help improve voting standards across the nation. While the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, which passed in response to the voting fiasco of the 2000 presidential elections, does establish some standards including a provisional ballot, states are not required to follow these policies. The only way to ensure that every vote is counted and that electors follow the will of the people of their state is to create a constitutionally protected right to vote. The Right to Vote Amendment will give Congress the authority to protect the individual right to vote and oversee voting policies and procedures to ensure that elections are fair, accurate and efficient.
The Bill: House Joint Resolution 74
U.S. House Members Mark Pocan, among a number of other co-sponsors, has shown great leadership in introducing House Joint Resolution 74 (H.J. Res. 74), a bill that would establish an explicit right to vote in the Constitution. Read FairVote's policy brief on the right to vote amendment. See the text of the bill below:
SECTION 1. Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.
SECTION 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.
Right to Vote Resources
RightToVoteAmendment.com - FairVote's resource hub on the Right to Vote Amendment
PromoteOurVote.com - FairVote's project to advance suffrage and civic engagement in communities in the spirit of a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote
FairVote Policy Brief on the Right to Vote Amendment
Right to Vote, by Jamie Raskin (The American Prospect, August 2001)
- Reverend Jesse Jackson addresses the NAACP Convention in Philadelphia, PA July 14, 2004
- Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. presents a position paper at FairVote's "Claim Democracy" conference, November 2003.
Robert Richie, Executive Director, FairVote at the Right to Vote Forum in Boston, MA on July 26th, 2004
Kim Gandy, President, National Organization of Women at the Right to Vote Forum in Boston, MA on July 26th, 2004
Jesse Jackson Jr., Congressman (D-IL) at the Right to Vote Forum in Boston, MA on July 26th, 2004
Election Reform and the Right to Vote, by Anita S. Earls, Director of Advocacy, UNC Center For Civil Rights, explains the limits of HAVA and what Congress can do to establish a right to vote.
History of the Right to Vote
Throughout the history of the United States, voting rights have been expanded repeatedly by Constitutional Amendments and legislation. When the Constitution was written, most of the Framers did not believe in universal suffrage. However, as we have progressed as a society, traditionally disenfranchised groups, including women and racial minorities, have received voting rights through Constitutional Amendments. Of the 17 Amendments ratified since the Bill of Rights in 1791, seven have expanded voter eligibility or increased democratic participation. Enshrining an affirmative Right to Vote in the Constitution would be one more step toward universal suffrage and equal voting rights for all.
The History of Voting Rights (PDF)
FairVote's "Promote Our Vote" Project
At the local level, FairVote rallies support for a constitutional right to vote through its Promote Our Vote Project, a pilot program most active in Maryland. Its unique change platform works in partnerships to advance resolutions at the organizational, campus, and local level in support of an explicit right to vote in the U.S. Constitution, and concrete changes in practices and policy to ensure fair and equitable voting rights. The program’s leadership consists of two dozen voting rights experts and advocates.
Based in Maryland, FairVote’s Promote Our Vote Project has worked with local elected officials to build support for city and county right to vote resolutions.
Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and the City of Takoma Park have each passed resolutions calling for an explicit right to vote in the constitution and other national voting rights policy changes, such as the passage of the Voting Rights Amendment Act.
These localities have a collective population of approximately two million residents.
Montgomery County and Takoma Park resolutions paved the way for right to vote task forces to make policy recommendations and produce reports for recent municipal elections.
Additional Maryland cities are considering concrete policy ideas focused on increasing civic engagement and voter turnout.
FairVote’s Promote Our Vote Project provides services to partners in Florida as they advance right to vote resolutions across the state.
The University of Florida and Palm Beach State College passed right to vote resolutions through their student governments.
These universities have a combined enrollment of over 70,000 students.
These resolutions supported a national and state right to vote. They also sought practices and policies that improve the voting process for students.
FairVote’s Promote Our Vote Project worked with Florida New Majority to introduce and successfully pass a right to vote resolution in North Miami.
I have never had a problem voting. Don’t we already have a right to vote?
American adults living in states typically can vote, but they do not have a federally protected right to vote enshrined in the Constitution. States protect the right to vote to different degrees based on the state’s constitutional language and statutes. The federal government traditionally only steps in to prevent certain broad abuses, such as denying the right to vote based on race (15th Amendment), sex (19th Amendment), or age (26th Amendment).
In most states, counties design their own ballots, pursue their own voter education, have their own policies for handling overseas ballots, hire and train their own poll workers, select polling place locations, and maintain their own voter registration lists. States have wide leeway in determining policies on absentee voting, polling hours and funding of elections. As a result, voters and potential voters have different experiences going through the registration and voting process depending on where they live. These differences can be even more pronounced in some local elections because of varying degrees of federal and state support.
States also currently have the power to explicitly limit the franchise. Current data shows states have chosen to deny nearly six million American citizens the right to vote because of felony convictions, including millions who have completely paid their debt to society. Some states even deny certain classes of overseas voters the right to vote.
Don’t citizens have a right to vote in presidential elections?
Not necessarily. Article II of the Constitution reads in part: “Each state shall appoint, such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors…” In other words, it is the state legislature and not the citizens of a particular state that determine which presidential candidate receives that state’s electoral votes. In the early decades of the country, several state legislatures actually appointed electors to the Electoral College, rather than hold popular elections in their state. In the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, five justices declared, “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States unless and until the state legislature chooses a statewide election as the means to implement its power to appoint members of the Electoral College.” The Court went on to say that Florida’s legislature has the power to take that power away from the people at any time, regardless of the popular vote tally.
In addition, it took a constitutional amendment in 1961 to enable residents of Washington, D.C. to vote for president. But the millions of American citizens living in territories like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam still cannot vote for president.
What administrative problems do we have with voting in the United States and how will a constitutional amendment help?
Without national standards, states are free to create their own voting policies and procedures, which can limit or restrict a citizen’s ability to vote. Only clear standards will ensure that every vote counts. States would be held accountable for running fair elections, and the federal government would be responsible for ensuring that funds were available to meet those high standards.
According to a study of the 2008 presidential election produced by the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2-4 million registered voters were “discouraged” from voting because of administrative hassles, such as long lines, voter identification, and problems obtaining an absentee ballot. The same study reports an estimated 9 million eligible people attempted to register but failed due to voter registration barriers like missed deadlines and changes of residence. A Constitutional Right to Vote will give Congress broad discretion in setting standards to ensure greater equality in election administration.
What groups of Americans would be protected by a right to vote amendment?
Legislation to establish a right to vote states that all American citizens who are of voting age have an individual right to vote “in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.” The federal government would protect this individual right to vote, thus making it more difficult for states or localities to disenfranchise groups or maintain procedures that make it unnecessarily difficult for citizens to vote. It would enfranchise all those who had been stripped of the right to vote due to a felony conviction and would pave the way for voters in Washington, D.C. to vote for a federal representative and Senators. In general, it would create more ways for individuals to ensure that their county and state use procedures that give citizens’ the ability to vote.
Will citizens in the territories (Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and Guam) be able to vote for president?
At present, residents of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam are all citizens of the U.S. They pay taxes and can be drafted into the military, but do not vote for president. While this amendment would not specifically give citizens of the territories the right to vote automatically, it does open the doorway for them to gain the ability to vote for president.
What about American Samoa?
Residents of American Samoa are not actually American citizens; they are nationals. Current legislation to establish a right to vote specifies that only American citizens would have a right to vote, so nationals would not be included.
Will non-citizens and 16-year-olds be able to vote?
Under this amendment the decision about expanding the franchise to non-citizens and 16- and 17-year-olds would remain within states’ jurisdiction.
Does the amendment get rid of the Electoral College?
The amendment does not specifically comment on the Electoral College. However, by declaring that every U.S. citizen has a constitutional right to vote, it does lay the groundwork for an argument against the Electoral College. But if the Electoral College remains, the amendment would bind state legislatures to appoint presidential electors based on the popular vote of the people.
How is this amendment different from the Help America Vote Act (HAVA)?
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 was a statute passed in response to the Florida election debacle and the systemic voting irregularities seen across the country after the 2000 presidential election. This act establishes some helpful standards. For example, it includes section on provisional ballots that allows a person to cast a vote if the person believes he or she is registered but does not appear on the voter register of that precinct. However, HAVA falls short because it does not set guidelines for how those provisional ballots should be counted.
Furthermore, the Act does nothing for the millions of Americans who are permanently disenfranchised in a dozen states because they are ex-felons. It does not prevent states from wrongly purging voters or engaging in other activities that limit the franchise. Fundamentally, it does not grant a right to vote. States still have the authority to direct electors to vote for a candidate of the legislature’s choice. A constitutionally protected right to vote is the only means to ensure that every American will be protected.
Does the amendment guarantee statehood for Washington, DC?
The Right to Vote Amendment does not specifically call for statehood for Washington, D.C. and its half million residents. However, the amendment does guarantee that all Americans who reside in our nation’s capital have a constitutionally protected individual right to vote, which could lead the way to full representation in Congress.
Is the right to vote a partisan issue?
No. The Supreme Court and many of our leaders from across the spectrum have affirmed the importance of the right to vote. Some may mistakenly believe that the amendment takes authority away from the states and moves it to the federal level, but in fact the amendment only ensures states meet certain clear standards in how they protect the right to vote. By ensuring that every American has an individual right to vote that is protected by the Constitution, this amendment establishes voting as an individual right, not just a privilege given by the states.
Too many young eligible voters are not registered to vote. FairVote proposes that all states establish a uniform voter preregistration age. Our suggested age is sixteen, as adopted in states like Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C. Upon reaching voting age, pre-registered voters are automatically added to the voting rolls and, ideally, sent information about the mechanics of voting and the timing of the first election for which they are eligible. Evidence collected from states suggests this change will have limited or no fiscal impact, but will have a direct impact on voter registration rates and participation when implemented effectively.
FairVote is proud to be a long-time supporter of voter pre-registration, and was the first national organization to originally support the reform. Other pro-democracy organizations have taken up the mantle for pre-registration legislation, and FairVote no longer takes an active role in advancing this issue. However, we proudly maintain a set of helpful research and resources for those who want to learn more and work to adopt voter pre-registration in states across the country.
Voter Pre-Registration FAQ
Does a national voter registration age already exist?
No. In some states, all 17-year-olds and some 16-year-olds can register. In other states, some 17-year-olds and no 16-year-olds can register. In many states eligibility changes year to year based on the date of the next election. The lack of uniformity creates confusion and makes it harder to run effective voter registration and education programs in schools and at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Does voter pre-registration affect the legal voting age?
No, Lowering the advance-registration age does not change the voting age. The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution sets the voting age at 18 years old. Local and state jurisdictions can lower the voting age if they so choose, but this is separate policy from voter registration.
Why is 16 years old a sensible age for advance registration?
When applying for a driver’s license, a 16-year-old can register to vote at the DMV.
16 years old is the compulsory school attendance age limit in most states.
Many states already allow 16-year-olds to register during parts of the election cycle.
Why aren’t the current registration programs in high schools good enough?
Registration drives typically do not focus on anyone other than seniors, and generally are most effective only during presidential election years. Currently, there is no statutory requirement for voter registration in schools. Implementation of a standardized voting curriculum would encourage students to learn about the mechanics of participation (i.e. requesting absentee ballots).
Does registering to vote at a younger age have long-term benefits?
Yes. Some states have already recognized the importance of early participation by allowing 17-year-olds to serve as full-time election judges. In addition, voter pre-registration has the potential to boost turnout. Academic studies and electoral analyses show that voting behavior is habit-forming. If you vote, you will likely keep voting. If you don’t vote, you probably won’t start. Its important to engage prospective voters early on to create a habit of voting and civic engagement.
Will this require states to adopt a new voter registration system?
No, a uniform pre-registration age does not require a new registration database system. In many states, advance-registered voters already are inputted into the voter registration database as “pending.” A State’s Board of Elections transfers “pending” voters to “active” status when they become eligible to vote.
Best Practices: Hawaii and Florida
In 2009, Dr. Michael P. McDonald, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, secured funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts to study voter pre-registration and implementation tactics in the two states with a pre-registration age of 16: Hawaii, where it became law in 1993, and Florida, where it passed in 2007. Dr. McDonald’s key finding is that voter pre-registration seems to have a measurable impact on voter registration when certain actions are taken to reach out to young people. Here are successful elements of these states’ voter pre-registration programs.
At registration drives, students can be given “I registered” stickers or other paraphernalia to show their pride and encourage others, including their parents, to register and vote.
In Hawaii, election officials have mailed registration forms to every eligible student, coordinated with volunteers to organize registration drives (schools are not required to participate), and worked with larger efforts similar to Rock the Vote to conduct assemblies.
The Low Cost of Voter Pre-Registration
Pre-registration does not require a new registration database system nor any new software, equipment, or personnel. In fact, in many states, pre-registered voters are already put into the voter registration database as “pending” and are transferred to “active” status once they become eligible to vote.
In states where voter pre-registration has been implemented, the proposed legislation has typically had a fiscal note stating that the bill would have "zero impact" on the state's budget. Moreover, modifications to voter registration information technology systems are typically accomplished through internal staff time and managed within existing resources.
The fiscal notes for the pre-registration bills in Washington and Maryland, for example, stated that pre-registration would have no fiscal impact for the state Department of Licensing. Indeed, the only costs that could not be managed through the state's current staff and resources were related to determining whether the current election management systems had the capability to hold pending applications for up to two years, and to withhold pre-registration records from public inspection and copying.
Some additional changes may need to be made, including revision of registration forms. However, these changes can be strategically managed by election officials, so that implementation is tied to when new forms are scheduled to be printed.
Computer programs at the state board and DMV must be updated. At the state board, the coding of state-wide voter registration databases must be updated in order to establish a procedure for activating pre-registered voters when they become eligible to vote. This is only necessary for the changes involving use of the date-of-birth field. At the DMV, the software has to be updated to change when staffers offer registration to young persons.
Analysis: Dr. Michael McDonald analyzes the effects of voter pre-registration in a 2009 report.
State-By-State Guide: Voter Preregistration
This table includes information on when and in what states 16- and 17-year-olds can preregister to vote, organized by state. This information was last updated in January 2016.
FairVote advocates that states and political parties act to allow citizens who will be 18 years old on or before the general election to vote in their party’s corresponding primary or caucus. A notable portion of citizens who have the right to vote in the general election in November currently do not have a voice in determining who will be on that general election ballot. Granting voting rights in primaries and caucuses to these 17-year-olds is only fair and will increase their political engagement through participation. Policymakers can implement this reform by state law or party rule.
The Facts: 17-Year-Old Primary Voting
17-year-olds can vote in Congressional and/or Presidential primaries and caucuses in a large number of states, including Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Seventeen-year-olds may also vote in District of Columbia primaries. Check the maps for Congressional and Presidential primaries and caucuses available on this page to confirm which races 17-year-olds in your state can vote in. Most states adopting this policy have done so by state law, but others have by changing state party rules. Parties may request allowing 17-year-old primary voting by asserting their First Amendment freedom of association rights.
- In Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, and Wyoming 17-year-old Democrats may caucus, but are barred from participating in the Republican caucus.
- This patchwork policy creates confusion and can potentially disenfranchise eligible voters. Parties should act nationally to make this practice a norm.
17-year-old primary and caucus voting does not require state legislative action:
- State parties have broad authority over their nominating contests.
- They may request to allow 17-year-old primary voting by asserting their First Amendment freedom of association rights.
Primary voting rights for 17-year-olds is legal and does not change the voting age:
- Only those 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the general election may vote in the corresponding primary election or caucus. Our proposal treats the nomination contest as an integral part of the general election in which these citizens can vote.
- The 26th Amendment prevents states from denying suffrage to 18-year-olds, but does not prevent states from establishing 17-year-old primary and caucus voting.
Voting when young forms a lifetime habit:
- Parties have a self-interest in encouraging this policy—if a 17-year-old votes in a particular party’s contest, that young person may vote for that party for decades.
- Studies show youth will vote if asked to do so—this policy increases youth engagement in the political process by creating an ethos of participation from a younger age. Once a person votes, that person is likely to vote again.
State-by-State Map: Congressional Primaries
These states allow 17-year-olds to vote in a Congressional primary election if they will be 18 by the date of the general election. For information on 16- and 17-year-old preregistration, click on this link.
This information was last updated in January of 2016.
State-by-State Map: Presidential Primaries
These state parties allow 17-year-olds to vote in their presidential primary elections or caucuses if they will be 18 by the date of the general election. For information on 16- and 17-year-old preregistration, click on this link.
This information was last updated in April of 2016.
- Sample letter of support for 17-year-old primary voting legislation in California from Fairvote
- FairVote case study on the Constitutionality of 17-year-old primary voting in Maryland
Policy brief on a proposed bill in the New Mexico legislature to adopt 17-year-old primary voting.
- News and analysis documenting the success of Illinois's 17-year-old primary voting policy from the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Lawyers' Committee.
FairVote supports cities lowering the voting age to 16 in their local elections. Empirical evidence suggests that the earlier in life a voter casts their first ballot, the more likely they are to develop voting as a habit. While one’s first reaction might be to question the ability of young voters to cast a meaningful vote, research shows that 16- and 17-year-olds are as informed and engaged in political issues as older voters. It is time that they are empowered to put that knowledge to good use at the polls, and make voting a habit in their formative years. These young citizens are old enough to drive, work without restrictions on their hours, and pay taxes--they should also have a voice in their local government.
FairVote has served as a thought leader and catalyst for lowering the voting age to 16 in cities, playing a critical role at the local level in Takoma Park ( MD), which became the first U.S. city to lower the voting age in 2013, and later Hyattsville (MD), which followed in 2015. We provide resources and advice to local reformers through resources here and at our Promote Our Vote project. Advocacy leaders as of early 2018 include Generation Citizen and the National Youth Rights Association.
Why should we lower the voting age to 16?
At first glance, many assume that 16-year-olds are unable to make mature and informed decisions about voting, that they will not turn out to vote, or that they will just vote the way their parents tell them to. However, research indicates that all three of those assumptions are untrue and are not a reason to keep local governments from extending voting rights to 16-year-olds.
Reasons to lower the voting age include the following:
Extending voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds is consistent with the fact that turning 16 has special significance in our culture. At age 16, citizens can drive, pay taxes, and for the first time work without any restriction on hours. It’s also a matter of fairness: when unable to vote until turning 18, some citizens won’t have a chance to vote for their mayor until they are almost 22. Long-time backers of a lower voting age, like the National Youth Rights Association, make this fairness argument as well.
This change has worked in practice. Two Maryland cities have successfully extended municipal voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds. Several nations, including Austria, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and the United Kingdom have extended voting rights to 16-year-olds for national, regional, or local elections. Additionally, more than 15 states already allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries to nominate candidates for president, Congress, and governor.
Research indicates that there is a “trickle up” effect on civic participation. When 16- and 17-year-olds engage in civics, conversations about politics and local issues are brought to the dinner table. Parents and family members are engaged in civic life through the 16- and 17-year-olds in their household, with a positive impact on voter turnout for people of all ages.
A detailed study of voters' ages and habits in Denmark found that 18-year-olds were far more likely to cast their "first vote" than 19-year-olds, and that every month of extra age in those years resulted in a decline in "first vote" turnout. Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections will enable them to vote before leaving home and high school, and establish a lifelong habit of voting. Evidence from Austria confirms that extending voting rights to people after they turn 16 promotes higher turnout for first-time voters and over time. Austria's experience also shows that 16- and 17-year-olds are ready to contribute sound decision making and quality participation in democracy.
In Practice in the U.S.
FairVote played a vital role in Takoma Park, MD's extending municipal voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds in 2013. The results in Takoma Park have been incredibly positive, affirming the growing body of research indicating several benefits of lowering the voting age. In 2013, Takoma Park 16- and 17-year-olds voted at twice the rate of voters 18 and older. Residents also support the measure: In an exit poll of an April 2014 Takoma Park special election, 72% of participants supported keeping voting rights for 16- and 17-year-olds in city elections.
Hyattsville, MD, with FairVote’s support, followed Takoma Park’s lead and adopted 16- and 17-year-old voting in January of 2015.
Research and Resources
- Our coverage of Hyattsville's decision to lower the voting age at the blog.
- A Scottish study from 2014 finds that 16- and 17-year-old voters are just as political as older counterparts, and that there is no strong association with the voting intentions of their parents.
- An Austrian study from 2012 finds that the quality of 16- and 17-year-old citizens' choices were the same as older voters'.
- A Rutgers study finds that 16- and 17-year-olds are both neurologically and socially mature enough to vote responsibly.
This piece by Democratic Audit UK argues that while lowering the voting age is not a panacea for youth engagement, it is essential for democracy.
Universal voter registration would modernize voter registration in the United States. Government would be responsible for maintaining accurate and complete voter rolls, shifting our system from its current opt-in structure to an opt-out structure. Automatic universal voter registration would significantly reduce duplications and omissions on the voter rolls, resulting in a system that balances the twin goals of election accessibility and security.
FairVote is proud to be a long-time supporter of universal voter registration, and was the first national voting organization to originally support the reform. Other pro-democracy organizations have taken up the mantle for comprehensive voter registration legislation, and FairVote no longer takes an active role in advancing this issue. However, we proudly maintain a set of helpful resources for those who want to learn more and advance universal voter registration in states across the country.
Why We Need Universal Voter Registration
Complete and accurate voter rolls are essential to the integrity of the electoral process and the legitimacy of results. Yet, as evidenced by recent elections, voter rolls are littered with duplicate registrants and errors. Nearly a third of eligible American voters are not registered to vote and voter registration drives result in a surge of registrations close to an election that are difficult to process and that create unanticipated demands on polling places. As a result, millions of eligible voters are effectively shut out of the political process.
While no voter registration process is perfect, ours is riddled with flaws. The United States is one of only a few democracies in the world where the government does not take responsibility for registering voters. Instead, our government leaves the construction of voter rolls up to partisan and non-partisan voter registration organizations, political parties, election officials, and active citizens. Sadly, this hands off approach invites voter registration fraud. It is not surprising that voter rolls are neither complete nor accurate.
In contrast, the international norm is an orderly process of automatic registration of every citizen who reaches voting age and of every person who becomes a citizen. Citizens are automatically placed on voter rolls upon reaching voting age and/or government officials actively work to register all citizens. For example, in Iraq's first democratic elections, election officials automatically transferred the names of Iraqis from ration lists to voter rolls.
Voter registration should be the mutual responsibility of citizens and their government. The government should not only facilitate registration; it should actively register adults who are eligible to vote as part of its responsibility to have accurate rolls. 100% voter registration should be the goal. Moreover, universal voter registration has the potential to bring together conservatives who are concerned about fraudulent voter registrations and liberals who are concerned about anemic political participation.
The most comprehensive way to move toward universal voter registration is to establish federal standards that states must follow to ensure all eligible voters are on their states' voter roll. These standards must also be twinned with a failsafe to ensure citizens that are not on the rolls can register and vote on Election Day. The federal standards should also set a national uniform voter registration age of 16-years-old, where youth are systematically registered to vote and automatically added to the voter rolls upon reaching voting age.
Even before we have a national standard, states can take immediate action. States like Florida and Hawaii have already set a uniform voter registration age of 16. Oregon passed first-of-its-kind automatic voter registration legislation in 2015, ensuring that any eligible Oregonian with a driver's license will be automatically registered to vote and will receive a ballot by mail weeks before Election Day. Several states are also working toward automatic voter registration policies, where citizens filing state tax returns are systematically registered to vote. States can also tie Post Office Change of Address forms to the voter registration database and utilize existing state databases to move toward a system of universal voter registration.
However best achieved, we believe that such changes would register far more citizens in an orderly way, generate more understanding of the value of 100% registration, and provide a means to systematically introduce young people to the importance of political participation. We see a natural complement to this proposal being a "voting curriculum" for high school students.
FairVote Policy Guide: Universal Voter Registration
The Canadian Model
Massachusetts Health Care Model
An International Perspective
The Brennan Center for Justice on Voter Registration Modernization
Voter Registration Guide
This table presents state-by-state deadlines for voter registration. Information is provided on the last possible day to register in each state, and the different deadlines for in-person, mail-in, online, or third party registration in each state as necessary.
Last Updated January 2016
Districts Plus allows a state to elect its state legislature in districts while also ensuring a fair and proportional outcome statewide. It makes every vote in every district meaningful in every election, and it ensures that the political party whose candidates receive the most votes statewide wins the most seats statewide.
Districts Plus is a candidate-based form of voting known internationally as mixed-member proportional representation, because it combines local representation in districts with extra accountability seats to ensure fair outcomes statewide.
Districts Plus for State Legislatures
Districts Plus can be used to elect state legislatures, in order to retain the use of districts but also ensure fair outcomes overall and make every vote important in every election. Most representatives continue to be elected in districts, but the overall statewide vote received by a party's candidates is determined, and then extra "accountability seats" are awarded to ensure fair representation. This ensures that every party has an incentive to field a candidate in every district, and it means that a vote for a party nominee will help that party win seats, even if that particular nominee cannot win in that particular district.
Jack Nagel, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania describes state legislatures as the most suitable setting for implementation of Districts Plus.
To see how Districts Plus could work in your state, see our one page policy brief and its accompanying model state constitutional amendment, from FairVote's Policy Guide 2016.
Districts Plus for the Michigan House of Representatives
Michigan's current process for drawing district lines has resulted in highly problematic outcomes. In 2012, Democratic candidates for the Michigan House of Representatives won about 54% of the two-party vote, but they won only 46% of seats, with Republican nominees instead winning control of the state legislature. More than 75% of district elections were won by a margin greater than 10%, suggesting a lack of competition in most legislative elections. Districts Plus can help resolve these issues:
FairVote has developed a comprehensive Districts Plus plan for the Michigan House of Representatives. To learn more about how Districts Plus would work in Michigan, read that report here.
Districts Plus Around the World
Districts Plus is a candidate-based form of voting known internationally as mixed-member proportional representation, or "MMP." MMP is used successfully in national elections in several countries, including Germany and New Zealand. To see how MMP works, watch this video from popular YouTube educator, CGP Grey:
See FairVote's blogs on Germany's 2009 Elections, Scotland's use of MMP, and proportional representation methods in Malta for more on what Districts Plus could and does do in international elections to improve representation, or watch this video about MMP in New Zealand.
The open ticket system is a form of fair representation voting that combines the benefits of fair and proportional representation with simplicity for voters and election administrators. Every voter votes for exactly one candidate in a partisan election, and the party whose candidates win a majority of votes in the district always win a majority of seats, while smaller groups can also elect their fair share. When used internationally, open ticket voting is known as the unordered open list system.
How Open Ticket Voting Works
In an open ticket election, voters cast one vote in a partisan election to elect multiple candidates at-large or in a multi-winner district. The open ticket method in multi-winner elections is a form of fair representation voting.
As in ranked choice voting, if any candidates win more than a certain share of votes, called the threshold, then those candidates are elected. The threshold is the number of votes that guarantees that the candidate will win, because it would be mathematically impossible for them to lose. For example, in a three-winner district, the threshold is 25%, because if one candidate receives more than 25% of the votes, then it is impossible for three other candidates to beat them. In a four-winner district, the threshold is 20%; in a five-winner district, it is about 17%.
Unlike ranked choice voting, voters do not rank candidates. Instead, votes for candidates from one political party help elect other candidates from the same political party. For example, if one political party's candidates collectively receive 60% of the vote in a three-seat district, that party will win two out of three seats, and the two candidates elected will be the two candidates from that party with the most votes. If another party received the other 40%, that party would win the remaining seat, and its top candidate would be elected.
After counting votes and electing candidates above the threshold, administrators would use a proportional representation formula, like the Jefferson's method (named after Thomas Jefferson, who introduced it for use in allocating seats in the House of Representatives in 1791), to determine how many seats to award to each party. Then, the highest vote-getters from those parties are elected. Independent candidates can still run and win election by receiving more votes than the threshold.
Additionally, candidates should be able to optionally list a second back-up political party, in the tradition of fusion voting. That way, if a smaller political party's candidates do not receive enough votes to win a seat, then their votes can help elect candidates from their back-up parties instead.
Because open ticket voting involves only casting one vote for one candidate, it can be administered using any existing voting equipment, and votes can be counted at the precinct level before being reported.
Open Ticket Voting Around the World
The open ticket system is based on the method used for parliamentary elections in Finland, there called the "unordered open list system." Similar methods are used in Brazil and in Latvia. Finland divides into multi-winner districts that elect between six and 35 members (with one autonomous administrative region electing a single member as well), demonstrating how the open ticket method can comfortably accommodate elections with large numbers of candidates and a large number of elected seats.
Top Four operates like the Top Two primary used in California and Washington - but it gives more voice to voters in the November election.
Under both Top Two and Top Four, nominating primary elections (whether open, closed, or semi-closed) are abolished and replaced with a single preliminary election. Under Top Two, every candidate seeking office runs against every other in the preliminary election. They all appear on the same ballot irrespective of political party preference, and voters vote for one. Then, the general election features the two candidates who received the most votes, even if both identify with the same political party.
Although Top Two does allow voters to participate on equal footing whether they affiliate with a political party or not, the limitation to two in the general election severely limits voter choices and independent voices in general election debates, undermining some of its admirable goals.
Top Four uses the same type of preliminary election used in Top Two, but instead of advancing only two candidates to the general election, it advances four. Then, the general election makes use of ranked choice voting so that voters can rank the candidates who advance.
Why Top Four Gives More Voice to Voters
When only two candidates advance, voters have limited choice in the general election. More voters participate in general elections than primary elections (of any type), and so what choices voters have in the general election matters. Under Top Two, most races feature only one Democrat and one Republican. A minority of races feature only two Democrats or two Republicans, meaning that even fewer voters will have a candidate in the race they support. Independents and "third party" candidates almost never advance a candidate under Top Two in elections where both Democrats and Republicans run.
Top Four would likely advance both a Democrat and a Republican in every race. Nearly every race would also feature more than one candidate from one of the two major parties. And a significantly higher number of races would include a candidate outside of the two major parties. This allows voters to hear a broader spectrum of opinion in the debates, and it ensures that many more voters will have the opportunity to vote for a candidate they support.
Most elections under Top Two still feature one Republican and one Democrat, even in heavily partisan districts, but under Top Two voters lack any alternative candidates. Only very rarely does Top Two advance two candidates from the same party, which may render a more competitive race in heavily partisan districts, but that comes at the cost of providing no choices outside of the majority party to any voters within that district. And often such races happen as a result of vote-splitting among a large number of candidates in the preliminary.
On the other hand, Top Four would advance two candidates from the majority party in nearly every race. It would also advance at least one candidate from each major party. And it would advance far more Independent and alternative party candidates. Top Four would thus accomplish the goals of Top Two better than Top Two while avoiding the pitfalls that have led to many opposing the system.
A More Representative Electorate
Under Top Two, most candidates are eliminated after the preliminary election, yet typically about half as many voters participate in that preliminary election as in the general election. Further, that small group of voters tends to be older, more conservative, and less representative of racial minority populations. Top Four would ensure that this group of voters would not have the power to eliminate otherwise viable candidates that the more representative general election voters may support.
Avoids "Vote Splitting"
In a vote-for-one preliminary election with a large number of candidates, votes may split up in such a way that neither the first or second-place candidates are representative of a majority of voters. For example, in California's Congressional District 31 in 2012, a majority Democratic, majority-minority district advanced only two white, conservative Republicans to the general election. This was because only those two Republicans ran, while four candidates ran as Democrats, splitting the Democratic vote too evenly among them. As another example, Louisiana's 2015 first round of election (note that although Louisiana does not use Top Two, the system operates similarly if no candidate wins a majority in the first round of election) eliminated all but one Republican, and that candidate was likely the weakest Republican in the race, ultimately leading to the election of a Democratic governor in an overwhelmingly Republican state.
With Top Four, any candidate receiving at least 20% of the vote in the preliminary election is guaranteed to proceed to the general election, and in fact candidates can expect to advance with far less than that. As a result, no viable candidate is likely to be left out of the general election. Then, the use of ranked choice voting in the general election ensures that vote-splitting will not affect the outcome of the general election.
Top Four Research
FairVote has analyzed election results from California and Washington - the two states using Top Two - to see how it is working, what issues arise, and how it can be improved.
For both states, we demonstrate how elections would have been different had four candidates advanced from the preliminary election rather than just two. In both states, that simple change would result in more races including both Democrats and Republicans, including more than one Republican or more than one Democrat, and including candidates who choose to run outside of the two major parties.
To learn more, see:
Top Two in Washington State
Fixing Top Two in California
Recommended Reforms to California's Top Two
An interstate compact for fair representation is an agreement between two (or more) states that each will adopt fair representation voting in multi-winner districts if the other does as well. It represents an innovative way for states to move forward toward a fairer and more representative Congress.
Two states - one controlled by one party and one controlled by another - can agree to become fair together. For example, a Democratic-controlled state whose districts unfairly advantage Democrats could join with a Republican-controlled state whose districts unfairly advantage Republicans. That way, the majority party in each state does not feel as though they are "unilaterally disarming." Both act together, or not at all.
Although a national standard is the best approach to achieving fair representation for all, states can act right now to promote fair representation through interstate compacts. An interstate compact is a binding contract between two states. If either state repeals or fails to implement fair representation voting in multi-winner districts, the other ceases to be bound by the compact.
The Potomac Compact
On February 5, 2016, Maryland state senator Jamie Raskin introduced an example of an interstate compact for fair representation, which he called the Potomac Compact for Fair Representation. Delegate Al Carr reintroduced the Potomac Compact on January 30, 2017.
Under the Potomac Compact, Maryland and Virginia (if it also passed the compact) would each send citizens to a joint independent redistricting commission. That commission could then implement a multi-winner district plan: Maryland would divide into two districts, each electing four; Virginia would divide into three districts, two of which elect three and one of which elects five. Within those districts, voters would use ranked choice voting or another fair representation voting method.
Our analysis suggests that such a plan would allow voters in every part of both states to elect candidates from the major party they prefer. With ranked choice voting, every voter would be in a meaningfully contested election, and the outcomes would be far more fair than they are in either state now. It could do all that for both states without changing the overall partisan impact for either political party, making it a safe political choice for both states.
On March 3, 2016, FairVote testified in Maryland in favor of the Potomac Compact for Fair Representation.
Since 1967, a federal statute has required all states to elect all Members of the U.S. House of Representatives in single-winner districts, even though many states had historically elected at-large or in multi-winner districts. Although the law was well-intentioned, it has locked in a system of manipulation of district lines for political gain.
At a minimum, Congress should repeal that mandate, returning to states the right to use multi-winner elections for their congressional delegations. To accommodate the concerns over use of at-large elections to dilute the votes of political and racial minorities, Congress should require that any state using multi-winner elections must do so in a way that allows such minorities to elect candidates of choice.
As an example of such a proposal, FairVote recommends the State Choice of Voting Method Act. That Act would merely repeal the 1967 single-winner district mandate and specify that any state using multi-winner elections must use a voting method that satisfies three criteria:
- The election method ensures majority rule and equal voting power;
- The method ensures that if a candidate receives more than one-third of votes cast in a multi-winner election, then that candidate will be elected; and
- The election method does not violate the Voting Rights Act.
In short, the Act specifies that if a state uses multi-winner elections, it must also use fair representation voting.
These fair representation voting methods are already in use in over 200 cities, counties, and other local jurisdictions. From 1870 to 1980, Illinois elected its state house of representatives with fair representation voting. Most democratic countries elect their national legislatures in multi-winner elections.
The Act draws on a similar bill introduced in 1999 by Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) and co-sponsored by Members including James Clyburn (D-SC) and Tom Campbell (R-CA). It received favorable testimony from the Department of Justice.
To learn more about the State Choice of Voting Method Act, see our one-page policy brief and model statute.