Although it is possible for an Elector to cast his or her vote for someone other than for the popular vote winner in their state, this is quite rare in modern times. As a result, electoral votes for a state tend to be "winner-take-all".
Maine and Nebraska have adapted a slightly different approach. Using the 'congressional district method', these states allocate two electoral votes to the state popular vote winner, and then one electoral vote to the popular vote winner in each Congressional district (2 in Maine, 3 in Nebraska). This creates multiple popular vote contests in these states, which could lead to a split electoral vote.
Maine adapted this rule in advance of the 1972 presidential election, while Nebraska enacted it starting with the 1992 election. A split has occurred once in each of these states. In 2008, Barack Obama won Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District (Omaha and its suburbs), gaining a Democratic electoral vote in that state for the first time since 1964. In 2016, Donald Trump won Maine's 2nd Congressional District, which covers most of the state away from Portland, Augusta and nearby coastal areas. Statewide, Maine last voted Republican in 1988.
The popular vote winner of a state must win* at least one of the districts. That is why (in our website and App maps) you cannot assign all the district electoral votes to the losing party in the state.
State legislatures decide how to allocate electoral college votes. There have been occasional efforts to change allocation methods over the years. These usually arise when the party of the losing presidential candidate differs from the party controlling the state legislature. If you'd like to learn more about some of the alternative methods that have been proposed and see how the 2012 election would have turned out if some or all of the states had used these different methods, visit our Gaming the Electoral College feature. We will update this for 2016 when the popular vote by congressional district becomes available, likely during the first quarter of 2017.
* This is true in our current political environment where two candidates (the Democrat and Republican) receive almost all the votes. It would not necessarily have to hold if there was a 3rd party candidate that received a significant share of the votes.
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