by Jordan Evans
Since the 1992 Presidential election, Nebraska has used the Congressional District Method (CDM) to distribute its electoral votes. The 2012 Presidential election should be the last time it is used. While the CDM seems ideal for adhering to the “one person, one vote” standard articulated in Reynolds v. Sims, it actually does greater harm than good.
The CDM can be much different from the winner-take-all approach. It is different in that the candidate receiving the most votes statewide does not necessarily receive all of Nebraska’s electoral votes. Instead, a candidate receives the same number of electoral votes as congressional districts he wins. The statewide winner then receives two additional electoral votes, representing Nebraska’s two Senate seats.
Until the 2008 election, the CDM had never differed practically from the winner-take-all approach because the statewide winner always won each individual congressional district. This was true in Maine as well, the only other state to use the CDM. In 2008, however, Nebraska split its electoral votes when Barack Obama took the 2nd congressional district and John McCain received the four remaining electoral votes.
This may seem an event to celebrate. After all, the voters of the 2nd district assigned their single electoral vote to their candidate of choice, despite the opposing majority voice throughout the rest of the state. But although this may seem a positive development in election law, it is not. Nebraska actually does its citizens a disservice by using the CDM.
Competition and inclusion are good things in American politics. They drive compromise, something very absent these days. But the CDM inhibits both. This is a result of many voting districts throughout the country being “safe” districts for either of the two major parties. Relatively few voting districts nationwide are truly competitive “swing” districts. The result is that candidates from both parties focus less on the “safe” districts and more and the “swing” districts. A Republican candidate has no reason to cater to a “safe” district’s voters if he knows he will win that electoral vote regardless. Likewise, a Democratic candidate has no incentive to waste resources in a Republican district when there may be a reasonable chance to win an electoral vote elsewhere—such as Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. Competition suffers severely as a result.
Nebraska is historically a “safe” republican state. But with the 2nd Congressional District being the only real “swing” district in Nebraska, rest assured it will receive the most attention from both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney will not waste his time on Nebraska’s other voting districts, knowing he will likely win those electoral votes regardless. Likewise, Barack Obama will not waste his resources in those other districts, knowing that he stands no reasonable chance at winning. Both candidates’ attention will rest solely with the 2nd Congressional District. The other districts will be effectively excluded from the political discussion.
Another major issue with the CDM is that it magnifies the extent to which gerrymandering affects the political process. Because the CDM gives one electoral vote to every district, each district’s boundaries mean exponentially more than in a winner-take-all state. The CDM does have its positive effects, but it is not a feasible alternative until gerrymandering is less influential.
At a minimum, Nebraska should return to the winner-take-all approach. It is certainly not flawless, but it does create a more competitive and inclusive political atmosphere. Returning to the winner-take-all approach would make it more likely that candidates give due attention to parts of the state outside the 2nd Congressional District. And returning to the winner-take-all approach would help mitigate the effects of gerrymandering. Maintaining the current method, the CDM, only ensures that many Nebraskans receive less attention than they deserve.
Jordan Evans is a third-year student at William & Mary Law School.