In the majority of the United States, one candidate gets all of the state’s electoral votes. That holds true whether the state has 55 electoral votes to give, like California, or a scant 3 votes to offer, like Montana. Two states, however, don’t have to go the all-or-nothing route: Nebraska and Maine. Those states have opted to use the Congressional District Method, where electoral votes are distributed according to the state’s congressional districts instead of the state as a whole.
Although Nebraska and Maine adopted this method in 1992 and 1972, respectively, it didn’t really matter until recently, since each state’s congressional districts have historically voted the same way. The first time either of the states split votes was in 2008, when Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district, Omaha, went for Obama and the rest of the state went for Republican candidate John McCain.
But why use the split method when no one else does? First of all, there’s precedent. Way back in the 1804 (Thomas Jefferson), 1812 (James Madison) and 1820 (James Monroe) elections, Massachusetts used the Congressional District Method. Maine seceded from Massachusetts to become its own state in 1820 but kept their split votes method until 1828.
This served everyone just fine until 1968, when people got their feathers ruffled about the Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace race. Reformists thought that a three-way contest made electoral votes an unfair way to decide the state, because a candidate could win the whole pot of electoral votes even if he had just 34 percent of the state’s popular vote (if the other two candidates split 33 percent/33 percent or some variation thereof). Therefore, the electoral votes weren’t necessarily a good indicator of how the popular vote actually felt. Sound like a familiar issue?
As a result of those ruffled feathers, a bill was passed in 1969 (but wasn’t actually used until the ‘72 election) that would allow Maine to split their votes by congressional district as they had more than 100 years earlier. Nebraska followed suit 20 years later. Officials have tried at least three times since then to overturn the Congressional District Method, but so far, Cornhuskers seem content to keep things separate.