As a vitriolic presidential race shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic and a growing divide between liberal and conservative Americans draws to a close, the election’s outcome looks increasingly likely to come down to just a handful of electoral votes.
The vast majority of states award the entirety of their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes statewide—but two notable exceptions exist: Maine and Nebraska, both of which split their electoral votes through what’s known as the “congressional district method.”
Per the nonprofit electoral reform organization FairVote, this system—used in Maine since the 1972 election and in Nebraska since the 1992 race—allocates two electoral votes to the statewide winner but allows each congressional district to award one electoral vote to the popular vote winner in their specific locality. In Maine, this means that two out of four electoral votes can potentially go to someone other than the statewide winner; in Nebraska, three out of five electoral votes remain in play.
According to Savannah Behrmann of USA Today, Maine started splitting its electoral votes after seceding from Massachusetts, which also used the method, in 1820. The state switched to the more commonly used winner-take-all system in 1828.
More than a century later, in 1969, Democratic state representative Glenn Starbird Jr. of Maine proposed a return to the older split-vote method. Concerned that Maine’s electoral votes could be awarded to a candidate who received just 34 percent of the state’s popular vote (a potential outcome of three-way races like the 1968 presidential election, which pitted Richard Nixon against Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace), Starbird introduced a bill that was subsequently unanimously passed by Maine’s Republican-controlled legislature.
As former representative John Martin told Central Maine’s Paul Mills in 2016, state legislators approved Starbird’s bill under “the assumption that other states would follow suit.” But 20 years passed before another state made the change, and even then, the switch proved far more contentious than it had in Maine.
My wife @RebeccaSittler, a Nebraska native, reminded me today of why NE splits its electoral votes.— Dr. Andrew R. Schrock (@aschrock) November 4, 2020
If Biden does not win PA, NE's single electoral vote (from districts around Omaha) will be why he has 270. THIS lone blue dot.
The reason is Ernie Chambers. pic.twitter.com/z2YVfannpi
In the words of the Associated Press’ Grant Schulte, Nebraska adopted the split-vote system in hopes of attracting “presidential candidates to a state they usually ignore because it’s so reliably conservative.” Democratic representative DiAnna Schimek garnered support for the change by reminding Republican legislators of then-presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy’s 11-city tour of the state in 1968. (At the time, Kennedy was campaigning against Senator Eugene McCarthy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the state’s Democratic primary, which he ultimately carried with 51 percent of the vote.)
“That was when Nebraska mattered,” Schimek told the AP last month.
Since implementing the congressional district method in 1992, Nebraska Republicans have repeatedly attempted to overturn the voting framework in favor of a winner-take-all system. Most recently, a 2016 bill fell one vote short of securing the change, failing in large part due to the efforts of state senator Ernie Chambers, as Tom Batchelor notes for Newsweek.
Based on the votes tabulated so far, key news organizations have called four of Nebraska’s five electoral votes for Republican President Donald Trump and three of Maine’s four for former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden. With the race down to a razor-thin margin, reports Dionne Searcey for the New York Times, Biden’s lone Nebraska electoral vote—awarded by the state’s left-leaning Second Congressional District, which encompasses much of the Omaha metropolitan area—could be the one that propels him to a winning 270.
Prior to the 2020 election, Nebraska and Maine had only split their electoral votes once. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, earning the party’s first electoral vote in the state since 1964. In 2016, Trump won Maine’s Second Congressional District for the first time, marking the reliably Democratic state’s first Republican electoral vote since 1988.
“In all likelihood, the race won’t be so close that a single electoral vote would decide the outcome,” Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told the Omaha World-Herald’s Joseph Morton ahead of election day. “But it is important for the campaigns to compete everywhere that’s competitive, and NE-2 voters should think of themselves as living within their own swing state.”