Curing Our Democracy Part I: Nebraska's Electoral Vote Debate and the Pitfalls of the Winner-Take-All Rule Part I

by Joe Sroka // Published July 7, 2011
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If put on the spot, one may have difficulty articulating similarities between the states of Nebraska and Maine: the former, corn-yielding and reliably Republican; the latter, fish-producing and predominately Democratic. Yet Maine and Nebraska are the only states in the Union that presently split presidential electoral votes by congressional district rather than allocating all electoral votes to the statewide winner. In doing so, Nebraska and Maine are useful in diagnosing two conditions that plague our democracy: the current systems of partisan redistricting and presidential electoral vote allocation.

States possess plenary power to distribute electoral votes in the manner they see fit, and are not required to follow the winner-take-all rule in which all of a state's electoral votes are given to the statewide popular vote winner. All other states use this winner-take-all rule, but Nebraska and Maine use a district-based system in which the states split their electoral votes by congressional district. The winning candidate of each district is awarded that district's electoral vote, and the winner of the statewide vote is then awarded the state's remaining two electoral votes.

This system is often problematic for partisan reasons because a seemingly fairer system for any particular state can actually make the overall partisan balance of the Electoral College less fair. However, it does provide a chance for candidates who are not strong statewide, but have significant support in particular districts, to compete for some electoral votes in the state.

During the 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama took advantage of this opportunity by winning one of Nebraska's three congressional districts. The campaign set up field offices in the 2nd Congressional District-Democrat-friendly territory in and around Omaha on the state's eastern border with neighboring Iowa. Through get-out-the-vote efforts, media purchases, and personal visits from Obama in February 2008, the campaign engaged with Nebraskan voters and was rewarded by an Election Day victory in the district.

In reaction to Obama's success, Republican-aligned (Nebraska's unicameral legislature is officially non-partisan) State Senator Beau McCoy introduced a bill that would return the winner-take-all rule in which the candidate with the highest statewide vote total would be awarded all of Nebraska's five electoral votes. Explaining the rationale for the proposal, McCoy said, "I believe that presidential candidates should have to campaign for all of Nebraska."

Democratic U.S. Senator Ben Nelson opposes the bill and is worried about the implications winner-take-all allocation will have on elections in the state. And he's right to be concerned. Far from campaigning for all of the state, under the winner-take-all rule presidential candidates will go from competing for some of Nebraska to none of Nebraska.

With no Democrat carrying the statewide popular vote since Lyndon Johnson's landside victory in 1964, Nebraska is clearly a reliable Republican state. Without electoral vote splitting, Democratic candidates will remain hopelessly behind statewide, with no incentive to seek votes in urban Omaha, while Republican candidates can stay comfortably ahead, with no need to court additional votes in western rural areas. In this light, the winner-take-all proposal is a sly political maneuver designed to lower Democratic turnout in Nebraska and secure election victories for Republican candidates.

Under the proposal, President Obama will have little incentive to again pursue votes in eastern Nebraska as he did in 2008. Senator Nelson wants a presidential campaign in his state to increase Democratic turnout for his possible re-election bid and to help other down-ticket races. Under winner-take-all however, Nebraskan voters will once again be ignored by presidential candidates in this consistently red state.

And therein lies the essence of the problem with winner-take-all rules for allocating electoral votes. Nebraska is a microcosm of a national problem: the current electoral system only requires presidential candidates to court votes in a handful of battleground states. In the left-behind states, where voters are very unlikely to swing the election, they turn away, tune out, and stay home.

Fortunately, there are antidotes to this electoral infirmity. Under the National Popular Vote interstate compact, states would agree to award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote for president from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. State Senator Ken Haar has introduced a bill for Nebraska to join this interstate agreement, which requires enough states to guarantee 270 electoral votes, and thus a presidential victory, before becoming effective.

Under a national popular vote structure, presidential candidates would be encouraged to campaign and spend money across the country, not just a handful of predetermined battleground states. A vote in Omaha would be just as valuable as a vote in Orlando; a vote in Nebraskan cornhusker country equal to one in Pennsylvanian coalmining country. Therefore, presidential candidates would really compete for all of Nebraska, as they would in all states across the country.

But lest anyone be deceived into thinking allocation by congressional district is at least superior to winner-take-all, state politicians possess another partisan potion to meddle with the electoral system: redistricting.

See Part II for discussion of partisan redistricting and its implications for Nebraska, Maine, and the nation.