The National Popular Vote Amendment would remove the current system of electing the president based on the votes of “electors” from the Electoral College, and would elect the President on the total popular vote.
There have been a number of Presidential elections where the candidate receiving the largest number of votes from the people did not become President because they didn’t receive the required majority in the Electoral College. The most recent was the 2000 election. In that election the Democratic candidate, Vice President Al Gore, received 50,999,897 votes. The Republican candidate, Texas Governor George W. Bush, received 50,456,002 votes, or half a million less than Gore (numbers per Wikipedia). But Bush won 271 electoral votes to Gores 266, and so Bush became President. (The two other elections where the popular vote winner did not win in the Electoral College was in 1876 when Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but lost to Rutherford B. Hayes, and 1888 when Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost to Benjamin Harrison.)
The system of the Electoral College is set out in Article II, Sect. 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution. It was designed, at the time, to preserve states influence over the selection of the President, but also to help manage elections at a time when travel and communications were extremely slow. Under this system each state is given a number of electors equal to their number of Senators and Representatives. Each state determines how the electors are to vote, and most states have a winner take all system, where the winner of the state’s popular vote gets all of the state’s electors.
The real problem with this system is not that it is antiquated and convoluted, though it is both, and not that it occasionally gives the Presidency to the person who doesn’t win the popular vote, though it does. The real problem with this system is the way it skews the campaign for President.
Over the last twenty years or so the states have increasingly and reliably partisan. Most of the states in the South and Great Plains are reliably Republican, and most of the states on the East and West Coasts, and upper Mid-West are reliably Democratic. This means that in most Presidential elections only a handful of states are “swing states” or states that could go either way. The result is that most of the Presidential campaign focuses on those swing states. In recent years the main swing states have been Florida and Ohio.
To a large extent this turns the race for President into a regional campaign, where both parties focus their energy on only a handful of states. This means that vast sections of the country never get to see a Presidential candidate or their campaign commercials. (OK, maybe that second part isn’t a bad thing.)
A National Popular Vote would force Presidential candidates to campaign across the country. It would force them to campaign in every region, and to address the concerns of each region. It would nationalize Presidential elections.
There are a number of organizations working on what is called the National Popular Vote Compact. According to this compact the states can set their own rules for electors, and under the compact the states will say that electors have to vote for the candidate that receives a majority of the popular vote. One organization is called, simply National Popular Vote, and you can read about their plan at http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/. A second is Fair Vote, and they address the issue at National Popular Vote. A third is Common Cause, and they address the issue at National Popular Vote.
The problem with this Compact is that it seems to contradict the express provisions of the Constitution. It is, therefore, quite likely unconstitutional.
The better plan, in my view, is a straightforward Constitutional Amendment stating that the President and Vice President are elected directly by the people. The Amendment would also have to repeal the Twelfth Amendment, which sets out convoluted rules for the selection of President and Vice President in the electoral college.