Why Isn't Nebraska Winner-Take-All? The State Uses An Unusual Electoral Vote Method

If you've found yourself looking at a lot of electoral maps lately, you may have noticed something unusual about Nebraska: Unlike most states, it can split its electoral votes between more than one candidate. This means it's possible, for example, for Hillary Clinton to win one of Nebraska's electoral votes while Donald Trump takes home the the rest. In other words, Nebraska isn't a winner-take-all state like most of the others.

Nebraska's not alone in this respect — Maine, too, splits its electoral votes, and they're the only two places in the country to do so. Every other state awards all of its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state.

Why? Two words: States' rights. States are legally allowed to distribute their electoral votes however they please, and while most states use a winner-take-all method, Maine and Nebraska have instituted a more complex system. In both states, a candidate automatically gets two electoral votes if they win the popular vote at the statewide level. But candidates also get one electoral vote for every congressional district they win. There are three congressional districts in Nebraska and two in Maine, making the states worth a total of five and four electoral votes, respectively.

There are a couple of reasons why Nebraska and Maine instituted this system. It was largely a reaction to the 1968 presidential election, when Alabama Governor George Wallace ran one of the most successful third-party campaigns of the modern era and won five states — the last time a third-party candidate has ever won all of a state's electoral votes.

Some found this outcome concerning, though, and not just because Wallace was a racist. Because every state used a winner-take-all allocation method, a candidate in a three-way race could conceivably walk away with all of a state's electoral votes while winning just a small plurality of the state's popular vote. That's exactly what happened in Arkansas, where Wallace only got 38 percent of the vote but took home all six of its electoral votes. Nebraska and Maine subsequently changed their laws in an attempt to create a slightly more democratic system, where candidates could get an electoral vote even if they only won a single congressional district.

Ever since Nebraska changed its allocation system, state Republicans have attempted no less than 15 times to revert back to the old method. Even though the state is too conservative for Democrats to win the statewide popular vote, it does have one relatively-liberal area that Democrats do have a shot at winning. It's the 2nd congressional district, which includes Omaha, and in fact, Barack Obama did win it in 2008. This gave him one more electoral vote than he would have if Nebraska had used a winner-take-all system. And that explains why Republicans aren't particularly fond of the method.

That's the only time either Nebraska or Maine had split its electoral votes, but 2016 may be another one: Trump has a good chance of winning Maine's 2nd congressional district this year, and some forecasters expect Clinton to pick up an electoral vote from Nebraska's 2nd congressional district as well. That would be a wash, and Clinton is probably going to win the election by a comfortable margin regardless. Still, it's entirely possible that, either in this election or a future one, the whims of the voters in a single congressional district in Nebraska or Maine could determine the next president.