Since 1991, Nebraska has awarded its electoral votes to presidential candidates by congressional district, one of only two states that do not award all electoral votes to the statewide popular-vote winner. That may change, however.
Urged on by the state’s Republican Party, a large majority of Nebraska legislators now support changing to a winner-take-all system. Fervent opposition and a filibuster may hold the bill back. Nonetheless, the bill has pushed Nebraska legislators to ask whether their current system is working.
Nebraska’s debate is not new. It reflects the path that has led most states to adopt a winner-take-all system in allocating their electoral votes. And it explains why Americans have ended up with a presidential voting system that leaves most of them irrelevant in campaign after campaign. This is far from the founding fathers’ vision of every state mattering in selecting the president.
Back in 1800, just two states awarded all their electoral votes to the statewide vote winner. Several states had their legislatures, or special conventions, appoint electors. Other states awarded their electors by congressional districts or through special presidential elector districts.
Yet the seeds of winner-take-all domination were already planted. In 1796, John Adams narrowly defeated Thomas Jefferson in electoral votes. But Jefferson would have won if all Southern strongholds had used a winner-take-all system. Before 1800, Jefferson helped push such a system in his home state of Virginia. Within a few years, states increasingly followed his lead. Not because it was more representative — it was strategic. With political parties getting stronger, each state sought to maximize the advantage it could give its preferred candidate.
Some founders, including James Madison, opposed the winner-take-all system with states’ electoral votes. But by 1836, every state used the system except South Carolina, which continued to appoint electors. Presidential elections have been the same ever since.
Today, Nebraska has the option to follow the same strategic path. When some states maximize support for their majority party, other states have every incentive to do the same.
The fact that Nebraska’s Omaha-based district gave its vote to Barack Obama in 2008 seems enough for the state’s Republican majority. With a simple statute, legislators can eliminate that possibility for a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. That just might be the difference, in this era of close elections, between winning and losing the presidency.
Unfortunately, the strategic incentives of each individual state have resulted in collective madness. Winner-take-all rules mean that a candidate can lose despite earning a majority of the popular vote. In every single election, some three in four states, including Nebraska, will be absolutely ignored in campaigns.
The presidential battleground is shrinking. After the major party conventions in 2012, only 12 states received campaign visits. Even as they ignored other states, Obama, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and their running mates campaigned in Ohio 73 times, Florida 40 times and Virginia 36 times. New studies show that presidents steer federal grants toward swing states as well.
The nation deserves better. Nebraska deserves better. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” the Nebraska bill’s sponsor, Senator Beau McCoy, put it, “to have presidential campaigns campaign in North Platte, campaign in Scottsbluff, not just in Omaha?”
McCoy’s remark underscores that the answer isn’t having all states using the congressional-district method. Some four in five districts are locked up for one party’s presidential candidate. A nationwide congressional-district system would make it even more likely to have a “wrong-way outcome.” Our recent report, “Fuzzy Math,” found that Romney would have won the 2012 election by 10 electoral votes — despite winning 5 million fewer votes nationwide.
The district plan nationally is a nonstarter. But states also finally have a way out of the winner-take-all stranglehold: Guarantee election of the candidate who earns the most popular votes nationwide, including every vote cast in their state, with the National Popular Vote plan.
The National Popular Vote proposal is an interstate agreement, an exercise of states’ right to form compacts among states and to determine how to award their electoral votes. States commit, as a group, to award all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The plan is activated only after being adopted by states that collectively represent a majority of the Electoral College, 270 electoral votes or more.
To date, 11 states have signed on, holding a total of 165 electoral votes. Since Maryland became the first state to pass the National Popular Vote in 2007, progress has been slow but steady. New York was the latest signatory in 2014, when it passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
This is the only state reform that makes every vote matter in every state and in every election. Candidates would have to campaign across the entire nation rather than only in a small handful of swing states or swing districts. A voter in North Platte would matter as much as a voter in Omaha — and as a voter in Ohio.
Both parties regularly win the national popular vote. There’s no partisan skew like we often see in the current system or like we would see if adopting allocation by congressional district nationwide.
America’s constitutional framers gave states the exclusive power to determine how we control presidential elections. It’s time for state leaders to act and guarantee fair presidential elections for their states — and the nation.