Since 1991, Nebraska has awarded its electoral votes to presidential candidates by congressional district, one of only two states that do not award all electoral votes to the statewide popular-vote winner. That may change, however.
Urged on by the state’s Republican Party, a large majority of Nebraska legislators now support changing to a winner-take-all system. Fervent opposition and a filibuster may hold the bill back. Nonetheless, the bill has pushed Nebraska legislators to ask whether their current system is working.
Nebraska’s debate is not new. It reflects the path that has led most states to adopt a winner-take-all system in allocating their electoral votes. And it explains why Americans have ended up with a presidential voting system that leaves most of them irrelevant in campaign after campaign. This is far from the founding fathers’ vision of every state mattering in selecting the president.
Back in 1800, just two states awarded all their electoral votes to the statewide vote winner. Several states had their legislatures, or special conventions, appoint electors. Other states awarded their electors by congressional districts or through special presidential elector districts.
Yet the seeds of winner-take-all domination were already planted. In 1796, John Adams narrowly defeated Thomas Jefferson in electoral votes. But Jefferson would have won if all Southern strongholds had used a winner-take-all system. Before 1800, Jefferson helped push such a system in his home state of Virginia. Within a few years, states increasingly followed his lead. Not because it was more representative — it was strategic. With political parties getting stronger, each state sought to maximize the advantage it could give its preferred candidate.