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Nebraska Splits the Electoral Difference

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Republicans in Nebraska are considering eliminating how their state runs its electoral-college system. This is a marginally good idea for democracy.  

All states except for Nebraska and Maine allocate their electoral votes on a "winner take all" basis -- the presidential candidate who wins the state takes them all. In Nebraska, the winner of the race in each of the three congressional districts gets an electoral vote, with two-at-large votes going to the one who came out on top overall in the state. In 2008, that meant Barack Obama picked off a single electoral vote from solidly Republican Nebraska because he managed to get more votes than John McCain did in one of the three House districts.  

No, it doesn’t make much difference if Nebraska goes to a winner-take-all system. Democrats only have a shot at winning in the Cornhusker State's least Republican-leaning House district in very good Democratic years (such as 2008), and in those elections the Democrat will easily win the national electoral college anyway. But I'm for changing Nebraska's system because it's better for every state to use the same allocation method.

This is much different from the idea of some Republicans elsewhere to rig the electoral college by switching to the current Nebraska system in marginally Democratic states such as Michigan. This is unlikely to happen -- fortunately, since such a system would be awful for democracy. 

States use the winner-take-all system because it increases the chances that candidates will pay attention to them. (An exception is in large states that swing strongly to one party, such as Democratic New York or Republican Texas.)

In large states that only lean to a party, such as Michigan or Pennsylvania, the minority might occasionally win and have an opportunity to change the system. It won't do this, however. In part this is because the interest in maintaining the state's clout outweighs the partisan goals. And the new governors and state legislators interpret their victories as a sign that the state is swinging to their party, so splitting the electoral vote could backfire.

The different route taken by Nebraska and Maine (which has four electoral votes) suggests the incentives are a little different for small states. They have less to lose by using a split-vote system, because winning all of their electoral votes doesn't pack that much of a punch anyway. If Nebraska goes to a winner-take-all system, it will probably never again see a presidential candidate after the political conventions. Maine is more competitive for the parties, but the district plan doesn’t really affect candidates' strategies much.

The bottom line? As long as the electoral college is retained in some form, it’s best if each state uses the same system.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net