The electoral college has existed since the foundation of this country, but it hasn’t worked the same exact way the entire time. In fact, it doesn’t even work the same exact way from state to state right now. Maine and Nebraska split electoral votes. Both have opted to move away from the “winner takes all” structure followed by the majority of states.
Maine and Nebraska both allow their electoral votes to be split between parties, unlike the other 48 states. This is known officially as the congressional district method, and in both states this method was established within the past 50 years. Maine has been splitting electoral votes since 1972; Nebraska since 1992. The idea for splitting electoral votes this way, however, comes from much earlier in history.
In 1804, Maine was still part of Massachusetts, and Massachusetts used an electoral split at the time. This method survived through Maine becoming its own state in 1820, but was later abandoned.
It was revived in Maine in the 20th century due to a 3-way race in 1968. Nixon, Republican, and Humphrey, Democrat, had to contend with an independent candidate. George Wallace joined the 1968 election running on a platform of racial segregation.
Even though Maine went to Humphrey with a just over 55% of the popular vote, it raised concerns. Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace highlighted the way that the results of an electoral vote can severely stray from the popular vote. In particular, a 3-way race means that the leading candidate can realistically win 100% of a state’s electors even if they receive something like 34% of the popular vote. This is ultimately what inspired Maine to reinstate the congressional district method.
Nebraska did not have as obvious of an inciting incident. Also, ever since the first election where the state’s votes actually ended up going to two separate parties, there have been efforts to return to the “winner takes all” method. These efforts have not succeeded, and Nebraska continues to use the congressional district method.
How it Works
States receive their number of votes based on their senators (always two) and their representatives in the house (dependent on population). This means that states are already divided out into smaller sections perfect for allocating electoral votes locally – Congressional districts. The method is named for these districts because each one gets a separate electoral vote. The two remaining electoral votes come from the base two each state gets from their senators, and go to the winner of the state’s popular vote.
Alternative methods for splitting a state’s electoral votes have been proposed, but not implemented.
First Splits in History
Even though Maine and Nebraska have had the congressional district method in place for years, it generally hasn’t affected elections. In fact, neither state had ever split their electoral votes between candidates until 2008.
In 2008, Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district went to Barack Obama despite the rest of the state’s votes going to John McCain.
Maine’s first split party electoral vote occurred in 2016, for the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Maine’s 2nd congressional district went to Trump. The rest of the state’s votes went to Clinton.
The congressional district method has some distinct pros. It allows states to bring their electoral votes more in line with the state popular vote. It allows smaller geographical segments to have more of a voice, especially when they don’t line up with the state’s overall political atmosphere. It encourages candidates to campaign more broadly instead of focusing on solely on “battleground” states.
On the other hand, the method has some definite drawbacks. Gerrymandering is a factor in any system that relies on congressional district guidelines. The method still doesn’t reflect the popular vote particularly well for the state as a whole in most cases – if it did, many states would go very near a 50/50 split. That’s a problem too though; if every state adopted this style, there’s a solid chance that neither candidate would get to the required 270 votes to win the presidency. That would extend the campaign season even further, and puts the power to choose the president in the hands of Congress. A run-off vote system could be implemented to avoid this, but doesn’t exist in the current design.
If one of the goals of the congressional district method is to bring the results closer to a popular vote system country-wide, it doesn’t do so particularly well. But the method is successful at changing nature of campaigning in the states that use it. Finally, it demonstrates that adjustments to the electoral system can work.
For another unusual political set-up, check out our post on South Africa’s three capital cities.