Before you read what follows, please be aware it no longer represents the author's views. I wrote this article well before December 2012, when Republican legislatures in swing states tried to enforce the described practice on their own states. I assumed, falsely I now know, that congressional districts were delineated fairly, giving both major parties an equal chance. Sad to say, both parties have a bad recent history of gerrymandering, making the system I describe in the following article even less fair than the system we have now. Therefore, I repudiate everything you are about to read.
Nebraska made history in 2008 when, instead of giving all its electoral college votes to one Presidential candidate, it kicked one to the minority winner. Nebraska is one of only two states to use the “Congressional District Method” to apportion electoral votes (alongside Maine), though no state has split its vote in living memory. Until Omaha gave its electoral vote to Barack Obama, the “winner take all” system dominated voting cycles for generations.
Instead of celebrating a history-making event, registered Republicans in Nebraska’s nominally nonpartisan legislature began debate on a bill to reverse this law. As long as other states don’t practice this method, it’s not fair, they whined, that Nebraska gave up one vote that would have made no difference in the overall election. Though this method wasn’t overturned, Nebraska’s subsequent redistricting ensured a Republican majority in all congressional districts.
Yet this divided system seems desirable to me. Because Nebraska has such a system, Democratic candidate proxies like Chelsea Clinton and Michelle Obama visited a state that would otherwise have been a solid Republican lock. A state that was overlooked in the 2000 and 2004 election cycles was treated like its vote actually mattered. Even if one insignificant vote got diverted, the benefits to Nebraska voters seem inestimable.
More states could benefit from dividing the vote in this manner. Many states that seem secure for one party—like Texas, Louisiana, or Arizona for the Republicans, or New York, Illinois, and California for the Democrats—actually ended the last few election cycles divided by less than ten percent. What’s more, the respective voting blocs are generally concentrated in geographic regions: mainly cities for Democrats, more rural areas for Republicans.
In 2008, national media considered California, Oregon, and Washington such a lock for Democrats that they called all three states for Obama before any voting precincts reported in. But all three are dominated by large coastal cities with Democratic bases. The rural inland counties, as well as cities like San Diego with substantial military populations, trend significantly Republican in all three states. Rural populations stand hostage to rich urban centers.
America’s Founding Fathers created a bicameral Congress apportioned on two different standards so that large cities and populous states could not run roughshod over smaller agrarian regions. Yet giving a state’s entire electoral representation results in exactly this power imbalance. Republicans in Umatilla, Oregon, or Democrats in Austin, Texas, might as well not vote for President.
Imagine, though, if all US states divided their electoral votes like Nebraska does. Instead of taking entire states for granted, candidates would have to campaign by the congressional district, stumping for votes at ground level. This would make a Presidential bid much more labor-intensive for the candidates and their organizations, but since it would diminish the influence of statewide and national media blitzes, it would also help offset big money.
The last several Presidential contests have turned on “battleground states,” a list that has fallen significantly in recent election cycles. Most media agreed on a core list of thirteen swing states in 2004, yet by 2008, six states split narrowly enough to count as battlegrounds. This is a momentous drop-off since 1992, when seventeen states split narrowly enough to be worth fighting for. Too many states’ elections results today are foregone conclusions.
The same cannot be said for congressional districts. As Omaha proved in the last cycle, a city or region can shift suddenly when it feels its interests or regional identity are jeopardized. Omaha, a non-unionized industrial city, usually meets the Republicans’ core demographic. But with a growing minority population, and a labor base that has been decimated by offshoring less prestigious jobs, Omaha felt the McCain-Palin platform threatened its heart.
Despite perennial grumbling, America has never abolished the Electoral College. Considering the difficulty in amending the Constitution, it’s unlikely to ever be abolished. And small states like Nebraska, which sees its Presidential voting presence nearly doubled by the Electoral College system, gain from the continuation of the system. While far from perfect, the Electoral College certainly enhances the character of America’s federal structure.
Nevertheless, splitting the Electoral vote according to the Congressional District Method will advance America’s democratic principles. It will prevent Presidential candidates from taking entire states for granted. It will forestall hasty calls like we saw in Florida in 2000. And it will force candidates to meet voters where they live, instead of depending on corporate cash for media extravaganzas. In short, dividing the Electoral vote will unify America’s voting process.