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Nebraska and Maine allocate Electoral College votes differently than other states

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This year's presidential election, like every other, will not be decided by the popular vote. Instead, each state gets electoral votes, and the winner of the majority of those becomes president. Critics note that two winners in recent years failed to win the popular vote. The Electoral College also has its defenders, and two states do something distinctive within the Electoral College. Nebraska and Maine do not automatically award all of their electoral votes to a single candidate. Harvest Public Media's Elizabeth Rembert explains.

ELIZABETH REMBERT, BYLINE: In most of the U.S., the winner gets all of a given state's electoral votes, but in Nebraska and Maine, the losing candidate can still earn an electoral vote if they win in a particular congressional district. That's what happened election night 2020. Precious McKesson was in a hotel in downtown Omaha when she realized that Nebraska would split its electoral votes. The state is predictably Republican, but Congressional District 2, home to Omaha and its suburbs, had voted for Joe Biden.

PRECIOUS MCKESSON: We're crunching numbers, and we're like, oh, my gosh, do we call this? Did we really just do this?

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: We have a call on Nebraska 2. That district, with its one electoral vote - that has been awarded to Joe Biden.

REMBERT: That's MSNBC announcing that Biden had won one of Nebraska's five electoral votes. McKesson cast the vote for the Biden-Harris ticket as the elector for Congressional District 2. Donald Trump took the state's other four electoral votes. Nebraska has had this system since 1991. DiAnna Schimek was a state senator when she proposed the new system after hearing about it at a conference.

DIANNA SCHIMEK: And it just blew me away. I thought it sounded so good and so fair and a better way of distributing votes.

REMBERT: Nebraska has only split its vote twice. Barack Obama picked up one of Nebraska's five electoral votes in 2008, as did Biden in 2020. In Maine, Donald Trump won one of that state's four electoral votes in 2016 and again in 2020. Mark Brewer leads the political science department at the University of Maine. He says splitting the electoral vote means Republican candidates pay more attention to the blue state.

MARK BREWER: Trump went out of his way to come to a site in Maine's 2nd Congressional District, and he wouldn't have done that if there wasn't a split Electoral College vote.

REMBERT: The split system might be motivating Maine's Republican voters, too.

BREWER: It's pretty clear, at least for the past few cycles, that Democrats are going to win statewide. So if I'm a Republican in the 2nd Congressional District, you know, maybe I'm not super motivated to go out and vote for president. But since it's a split-vote arrangement, then my vote can still matter.

REMBERT: While some say it's created fairer elections in Nebraska and Maine, Barry Burden, who heads up the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that might not prove true elsewhere.

BARRY BURDEN: If it were done nationwide, I would say not fairer, and it might even have some more perverse consequences than the current system.

REMBERT: Burden suspects a national split-vote system would put gerrymandering on steroids and turn battleground states into battleground cities. Wisconsin, Michigan and New Hampshire have discussed adopting a split system. But in Nebraska, Republican lawmakers have tried over and over to get rid of the split vote and return to a winner-take-all approach. Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen says splitting the vote undermines the statewide popular vote. He says changing the Electoral College is a valid debate.

BOB EVNEN: But one thing's for sure, the way we're doing it now would not be a good policy for the country to adopt, and we're just hampering ourselves by doing it differently than 48 other states.

REMBERT: For now, though, the state's split system looks like it'll be in place for the 2024 elections.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Rembert in Lincoln, Neb.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elizabeth Rembert