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THE 2008 presidential election actually ends today, when the people whose votes truly count, the 538 electors chosen by voters to reflect their candidate preference, convene in each state to cast their ballots. The result might lack drama — 365 electoral votes for Barack Obama, 173 for John McCain — but when a high school biology teacher named William Forsee walks into Nebraska’s Capitol in Lincoln this afternoon, some history will be made.
Nebraska went for John McCain by 15 percentage points. Yet Mr. Forsee, a resident of Bellevue, just outside Omaha, will cast his electoral vote for Mr. Obama — the first time since 1892 that any state has chosen to split its slate.
Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that now apportion some of their electoral votes by Congressional district rather than give them all to the statewide winner. (Mr. Obama won all four of Maine’s electoral votes.) It explains why both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton campaigned in Omaha during the closing weeks of this year’s campaign.
Election theorists talk nobly of moving America’s presidential election to a popular vote, but that would require a Constitutional amendment. Swing states would never pass it, because it would mean giving up their influence. Neither would small states, which have a disproportionate influence in the Electoral College. But if every state apportioned its electoral votes as Maine and Nebraska do — one for each Congressional district, plus two for the overall state winner — millions more voters would suddenly become worthy of the candidates’ attention.
What’s stopping the safe states from making themselves more politically relevant? The understandable reluctance of one party to unilaterally improve the presidential prospects of the other. A failed initiative in California earlier this year to move to district-based apportionment was denounced for what it was — an attempt by Republicans to siphon off sure Democratic electoral votes under the guise of election reform.
But here’s a bipartisan solution: an electoral vote buddy system. Red and blue states of similar size should pair up and pass state laws to apportion their electoral votes by district.
It would seem counterintuitive for a Democratic legislature in New York to cede a portion of its sure 31 Democratic electoral votes, but not if it opens up some of Texas’ 34 votes for the party. Washington State could make its 11 electoral votes relevant, in tandem with Tennessee, which also has 11. In this past election, voters in Louisiana (nine electoral votes) and Mississippi (six) could have focused the candidates’ views on Hurricane Katrina rebuilding had they buddied with New Jersey, which has 15 electoral votes. That might have also yielded more debate about urban transportation issues.
Imagine how different the campaign would have looked if Mr. Obama, rather than making repeat visits to Denver and Dayton, Ohio, had stopped in San Antonio and Houston, while Mr. McCain held rallies in areas of relative Republican strength in New York like Dutchess County and Staten Island.
As most of the electors now cast votes that were ceded by the other party well before the Iowa caucuses, perhaps their state legislatures will take notice of Nebraska’s William Forsee, whose ballot was never taken for granted, and start looking around for a buddy.