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Nebraska and Maine split their electoral vote. Is it a better system than winner-take-all?

President Barack Obama stands at a podium in a packed arena. A banner reads "Welcome to Omaha, President Obama!"
Mike Tobias
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Nebraska Public Media
President Barack Obama visited Baxter Arena at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on Jan. 13, 2016. Obama won an electoral vote from the congressional district containing Omaha in the 2008 election, because of Nebraska's split vote system.

Every four years, the 2nd Congressional Districts in Nebraska and Maine become mini swing states in the presidential election. That’s because those states can split their electoral vote by district, instead of giving all the votes to the popular vote winner. Does the split vote approach offer a better option for the electoral college?

Back in 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign manager loved to daydream about a particular electoral vote: the one from Omaha, Nebraska.

That was “my favorite personal target,” David Plouffe wrote in his book about the campaign, “The Audacity to Win.”

Nebraska is a reliably Republican state. The last time it voted for a Democrat was 1964. But Plouffe’s daydream wasn’t all fantasy, thanks to the way Nebraska can split its electoral votes.

A 2008 newspaper article shows a picture of people celebrating with the headline ‘It’s just unbelievable.’
Omaha World-Herald
An Omaha World-Herald article from Nov. 5, 2008 shows Barack Obama supporters celebrating poll results that suggested Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District had voted for Obama, splitting the state’s electoral college vote for the first time.

Instead of assigning all its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote, Nebraska gives only two votes to the popular vote winner. The other three can be divided, with the electoral vote for each district going to whichever candidate has won the popular vote there.

After all the votes were counted in 2008, Plouffe got his wish. The congressional district containing Omaha sent its tally to Obama, splitting Nebraska’s vote for the first time in history.

Nebraska and Maine are the only states that can split their electoral votes between presidential candidates. The other 48 use a winner-take-all system, meaning whoever wins the popular vote gets all the electoral votes.

In recent years, the entire electoral college system has come under scrutiny. There’s been momentum to change the system or even do away with it altogether, in favor of adopting a national popular vote.

Some point to Nebraska and Maine, and their system of splitting the electoral vote by congressional district, as a fairer way to represent voters.

History of the split vote in Nebraska

DiAnna Schimek said when she heard about the split electoral approach at a conference, she immediately thought it was a better way to represent voters. The former state senator also hoped it would bring more presidential campaigns to the state and motivate voters.

“It just blew me away. I thought it sounded so good, so fair, and a better way of distributing votes,” Schimek said. “I came home all jazzed and ready to introduce something when the legislature started.”

A woman with glasses sits on a couch with a large, old scrapbook open on her lap. She smiles at the camera.
Elizabeth Rembert
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Harvest Public Media
DiAnna Schimek looks through scrapbooks from her time as a state senator at her home in Lincoln, Nebraska. She introduced the bill proposing to split Nebraska’s electoral vote during the 1991 legislative session.

The bill passed narrowly through the state senate and was signed into law in 1991. It wouldn’t be until 2008 before Schimek, a Democrat, saw the idea in action.

“[It was] pretty exciting, actually, to see it play out,” she said, “because there had been a lot of years where things went along as they always did. And I almost thought, well, we’re never going to have a split vote.”

It would take three presidential elections before another Democrat, this time Joe Biden, peeled off Nebraska’s Second Congressional District vote in 2020. Precious McKesson was in a hotel in downtown Omaha when she realized that the city and its surrounding area had split the vote for the second time in history.

“We were crunching the numbers, and we’re like ‘Oh my gosh, do we call this, did we really just do this?’” said McKesson, who was working as Biden’s Nebraska political director at the time. “When they called it on MSNBC, it was a really good moment. I kind of get emotional about it, because I called it at a hotel and then I got to hear it on national TV.”

A map of Nebraska shows that most of the state voted Republican, while the smallest congressional district voted Democrat.
Ketrit, CC BY-SA 4.0
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, via Wikimedia Commons
In the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump won four of Nebraska's electoral votes by winning the popular vote and the 1st and 3rd Congressional Districts. Joe Biden won one vote from the 2nd Congressional District containing Omaha, splitting the state's electoral vote for the second time in history.

McKesson said the split vote system motivates voters to get engaged and turn Omaha into a “blue dot.”

“When you’re able to know that your vote counted toward the electoral college, it gives everybody hope and gives everybody a voice,” she said. “Pundits talk about us nationally, because they know how important congressional district two is.”

Splitting the vote in Maine

Democrats have nabbed Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District vote, but in Maine – where the split system has been in place since 1972 – it wasn’t until 2016, and again in 2020, that Donald Trump won one electoral vote from the state’s largely rural second district.

Splitting the electoral vote in Maine means Republicans pay more attention to the state, according to Mark Brewer, who leads the political science department at the University of Maine. The popular vote in Maine has gone to Democrats in every presidential election since 1992.

“George W. Bush campaigned in Maine to try to grab a vote. Trump went out of his way to come to a site in Maine’s second congressional,” Brewer said. “And he wouldn’t have done that if there wasn’t a split electoral college vote.”

A map of the state of Maine shows its 1st Congressional District voted Democrat while its 2nd Congressional District went Republican.
Ketrit, CC BY-SA 4.0
/
via Wikimedia Commons
Joe Biden won three of Maine's electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election by winning the popular vote and the 1st Congressional District. Donald Trump took the largely-rural 2nd Congressional District, splitting the state's electoral vote for the second time since 2016, when Trump also won the second district.

The split system might be motivating Maine’s Republican voters, too.

“If I’m a Republican in the Second Congressional District, maybe I’m not super motivated to go out and vote for president,” Brewer said. “But since it’s a split vote arrangement, then my vote can still matter.”

Split vs. winner-take-all

Some argue the split system has created more representative elections in Nebraska and Maine.

Yet Barry Burden, who heads up the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that might not prove true if the system were expanded to other states.

“Splitting votes has its upsides in Nebraska and Maine,” Burden said. “But if it were done nationwide, I would not say it’s fairer and it might even have some more perverse consequences than the current system.”

Burden suspects a national split-vote system would intensify gerrymandering. He also points out that a candidate could still win congressional districts while losing the popular vote. Like in 2012, when Mitt Romney actually beat Obama in a majority of districts.

“If that race had been based on congressional districts in all the states, Obama would have lost, even though he won the popular vote and the electoral college vote,” Burden said. “So districts can create some weird distortions.”

Jonathan Rodden, a political science professor at Stanford University, said it would also turn battleground states into battleground cities, likely contributing to partisanship and further dividing urban and rural residents.

“We think it's bad to have an election that's only determined by Michigan and Pennsylvania – we would then have an election that was determined by, like, a couple of carefully selected districts within those states,” Rodden said.

‘Sour grapes’

Bills have been introduced in Wisconsin, Michigan and New Hampshire to go to a split electoral system, but they’ve stalled in legislatures.

“Those bills are often coming from people in the losing party who are unhappy that the state has given all of its electoral votes to the winner, even if it’s a narrow margin,” Burden said. “So it might be a little bit of sour grapes.”

Even when a state has the system, it’s not clear it’s here to stay. In Nebraska, Republican lawmakers in the officially nonpartisan legislature have tried over and over to get rid of the split vote and return to a winner-take-all approach.

In 2016, the state legislature was on a final reading of a bill that would restore a winner-take-all system – a typically perfunctory step on the way to law – when then-state Sen. Ernie Chambers filibustered the bill. The bill ultimately fell short on votes and Nebraska kept the split approach.

To Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen, splitting the vote incentivizes gerrymandering and undermines the statewide vote in Nebraska. He points out that Trump beat Biden by more than 182,000 votes in Nebraska’s popular election but still lost an electoral vote.

“You have this situation where someone who won in a landslide in the state didn’t get all the electoral votes,” Evnen said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily reflective of the interests of the entire state.”

A man in a suit and tie smiles for a picture.
Elizabeth Rembert
/
Harvest Public Media
Secretary of State Bob Evnen poses for a portrait in his office on Feb. 27, 2024. Evnen supports returning Nebraska to a winner-take-all approach for its electoral college votes.

While others debate changes to the electoral college and ponder if the model in Maine and Nebraska provides a good option, Evnen has no doubt.

“One thing's for sure: the way we're doing it now would not be a good policy for the country to adopt,” he said. “And we're just hampering ourselves by doing it differently than 48 other states.”

At the moment, though, any efforts to change the state’s electoral system have been stuck in a legislative committee since March 2023.

Nebraska’s split vote will likely be in play for the 2024 presidential election — a possibility Precious McKesson is excited for.

“You know, we've only used it twice,” the executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party said. “Our goal is to use it that third time.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Elizabeth Rembert reports on agriculture out of Nebraska for Harvest Public Media.
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