Nebraska Electoral College Plan Nearly Cost GOP a Seat in 2008

By Brittany Foster, Contributing Writer

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi’s plan to distribute Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by congressional district has faced criticism from both sides of the political aisle — perhaps unsurprisingly, considering what happened in Nebraska three years ago.

In 1996, Nebraska became the second state to implement the plan that Pileggi has proposed for Pennsylvania, awarding an electoral vote for each of its three congressional districts and two to the winner of the statewide popular vote.  

Rep. Lee Terry (R-Nebraska)

Republican Lee Terry has represented the Cornhusker State’s 2nd congressional district since 1998.  Through 2006, he held the district with margins of ten points or more — including a 25 point victory in 2004.

In 2008, the Obama campaign poured millions into voter registration and GOTV efforts in pivotal Douglas County — home to vote-rich Omaha and its surrounding suburbs — to the point where Democrats outnumbered Republicans there for the first time since 1994.

The race became extremely close, despite Terry spending twice as much as his opponent, Jim Esch, who was making his second attempt at the seat after losing to Terry by 10 points in 2006.  Terry sent mailers out encouraging voters to split their ballots between him and Obama, and the veteran GOP lawmaker was able to squeak by with 52 percent of the vote.  The a la carte manner of awarding electoral votes, however, had attracted the attention of Obama’s flush political operation, which was successful in securing the first Democratic electoral vote from Nebraska in decades.

This cautionary tale will be sure to resonate with Republicans from the Southeast if the Pileggi legislation is adopted. They hold on to slim margins in competitive districts that could easily tip toward President Obama again in 2012 — especially considering the Keystone State’s recent electoral history (Democrats have taken Pennsylvania in the last five presidential elections) and the Obama campaign’s vast financial resources, which could be used to similarly target the populous and politically active Philadelphia suburbs.

5 Responses

  1. Democrats are going to target legislators in the southeast anyway and they’ll do it largely through the Philadelphia news media. Half the population of the US lives in the 54 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas, whose core areas tend to be democrat run cities. National popular vote is a way to guarantee that outreach to highly concentrated urban voters will be relatively easy, given the local media outlets that serve each MSA.

  2. A survey of 800 Pennsylvania voters conducted on December 16-17, 2008 showed 78% overall support for a national popular vote for President.
    Support was 87% among Democrats, 68% among Republicans, and 76% among independents.
    By age, support was 77% among 18-29 year olds, 73% among 30-45 year olds, 81% among 46-65 year olds, and 78% for those older than 65.
    By gender, support was 85% among women and 71% among men.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The National Popular Vote bill is a state-based approach. It preserves the constitutionall y mandated Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded in the Electoral College. It assures that every vote is equal and that every voter will matter in every state in every presidential election, as in virtually every other election in the country.

    Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the national count. The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states would get the 270+ electoral votes from the enacting states. That majority of electoral votes guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states wins the presidency.

    National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state and district (in ME and NE). Now their votes are counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don’t matter to their candidate. With National Popular Vote, elections wouldn’t be about winning states or districts (in ME and NE). No more distorting and divisive red and blue state and district maps. Every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in AR, CT, DE, DC, ME, MI, NV, NM, NY, NC, and OR, and both houses in CA, CO, HI, IL, NJ, MD, MA, RI, VT, and WA. The bill has been enacted by DC (3), HI (4), IL (19), NJ (14), MD (11), MA (10), CA (55), VT (3), and WA (13). These 9 jurisdictions possess 132 electoral votes — 49% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

  3. Republican legislators seem quite confused about the merits of the congressional district method. In Nebraska, Republican legislators are now saying they must change from the congressional district method to go back to state winner-take-all. While in Pennsylvania, Republican legislators are just as strongly arguing that they must change from the winner-take-all method to the congressional district method.

    Dividing Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by congressional district would magnify the worst features of the Electoral College system and not reflect the diversity of Pennsylvania.

    The district approach would provide less incentive for presidential candidates to campaign in all Pennsylvania districts and would not focus the candidates’ attention to issues of concern to the state as a whole. Candidates would have no reason to campaign in districts where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind.

    Due to gerrymandering, in 2008, only 4 Pennsylvania congressional districts were competitive.

    In Maine, where they award electoral votes by congressional district, the closely divided 2nd congressional district received campaign events in 2008 (whereas Maine’s 1st reliably Democratic district was ignored).

    In Nebraska, which also uses the district method, the 2008 presidential campaigns did not pay the slightest attention to the people of Nebraska’s reliably Republican 1st and 3rd congressional districts because it was a foregone conclusion that McCain would win the most popular votes in both of those districts. The issues relevant to voters of the 2nd district (the Omaha area) mattered, while the (very different) issues relevant to the remaining (mostly rural) two-thirds of the state were irrelevant.

    When votes matter, presidential candidates vigorously solicit those voters. When votes don’t matter, they ignore those areas.

    Awarding electoral votes by congressional district could result in third party candidates winning electoral votes that would deny either major party candidate the necessary majority vote of electors and throw the process into Congress to decide.

    Nationwide, there are only 55 “battleground” districts that are competitive in presidential elections. Seven-eighths of the nation’s congressional districts would be ignored if a district-level winner-take-all system were used nationally.

    If the district approach were used nationally, it would be less fair and less accurately reflect the will of the people than the current system. In 2004, Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, but 59% of the districts. Although Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000, he won 55% of the country’s congressional districts.

    Because there are generally more close votes on district levels than states as whole, district elections increase the opportunity for error. The larger the voting base, the less opportunity there is for an especially close vote.

    Also, a second-place candidate could still win the White House without winning the national popular vote.

    A national popular vote is the way to make every person’s vote equal and guarantee that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states becomes President.

  4. This case seems pretty weak–Terry got only 55% in 2006, when there was no presidential election. Seems pretty clear that anti-GOP/anti-Bush sentiment in 2006 and 2008 drove down his numbers, not the presidential campaign targeting his district or how Nebraska awards electoral votes.

  5. Indeed, some of our GOP Congressmen have reservations about this Pileggi proposal for the same reason that Lee Terry did. In particular, Reps Barletta, Dent, Fitzpatrick, Gerlach, and Meehan stand to be affected here in PA. Why make the process more haphazard than it already is?

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