Republicans in Nebraska are on the cusp of removing a quirk in how the state awards its Electoral College votes that has made the state at least somewhat competitive for Democratic presidential candidates.
A bill to make the Cornhusker state winner-take-all in the general election — bringing it back in line with all but one other state — is awaiting its final procedural step ahead of passage in the unicameral legislature. What stands between it and the Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ desk is a filibuster by the rabble-rousing state Sen. Ernie Chambers, an independent who made national headlines last year for his effort to repeal Nebraska’s death penalty.
Nebraska and Maine are currently the two only states in the country to allocate their electoral college votes proportionally. Rather than give all five of its votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the state’s popular vote, Nebraska awards two votes to the state popular vote winner, while each of the state’s three congressional districts has an electoral vote to allot based on the popular vote in each district. The system allowed President Obama to capture an electoral vote from the state in 2008, the first time a Nebraska electoral college vote went for a Democrat since 1964.
Nebraskans have a reputation for forging political systems that separate themselves from the rest of the United States.
“Nebraska is the only nonpartisan unicameral legislature in the country,” Daniel Diorio, a policy specialist in elections program at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told TPM. “So it’s no stranger to standing out among the rest.”
The bill that originally awarded Nebraska’s electoral votes proportionally was passed in 1991. Its sponsor, former Sen. DiAnna Schimek (D) told TPM she would be “very sad” to see the state go back to winner-take-all, as she believes the current system “energized” voters and brought the state more attention from presidential campaigns.
“It did have an impact, economically,” Schimek said, noting the money and campaign resources that came into Nebraska because it was viewed as competitive. “We actually have gotten candidates, sporadically, in Nebraska, which is exciting. So I think people will miss seeing that.”
Republicans always resisted the proportional system, since it enabled Democrats to make a presidential race competitive on a district-by-district level, Schimek said. She estimated that more than a dozen winner-take-all bills have been introduced since her legislation passed 25 years ago.
But, according to Paul Landow, a political science professor at University of Nebraska Omaha, Republican efforts ramped up after the Second Congressional District surrounding Omaha — known as the reliably red state’s “blue dot” — went to Obama.
“Then of course all hell broke loose and ever since we’ve been on a tear to change back to the old system,” Landow told TPM.
The Second District is represented by Democratic Congressman Brad Ashford, but it’s not a gimme for Democrats. Mitt Romney won the district’s electoral vote in 2012, topping Obama 53 percent to 46 percent. But that’s not a risk Republicans in the otherwise red state want to continue to take.
The current bill, known as LB 10, was sponsored by Republican Sen. Beau McCoy. He has argued that going back to the winner-take-all model will make the state’s voice “count as much as possible,” according to the Associated Press.
“It makes sense to have a state with one voice … speaking border to border, rural and urban,” he told the AP.
Its supporters deny that the change is about preventing another 2008 scenario where Democrats peel off one of the state’s electoral votes.
“When it comes to electing the President of the United States, the process should be consistent,” Sen. Robert Hilkemann (R), who filed a motion to prioritize the bill, told TPM via email Thursday. “If consistency across the U.S. called for proportional allocation of electoral votes, I would support that.”
The overall national impact of taking one electoral vote out of play for Democrats would only make a notable difference in a very tight election. But like with redistricting and other structural changes to the election process, each party jockeys for every little advantage it can get. The irony of the Nebraska move is that nationally Republicans have been going in the opposite direction, hankering to make reliably Democratic states award their electoral votes proportionally so as to undermine Democrats’ current advantage in the Electoral College map.
LB 10 overcame a crucial hurdle when it narrowly cleared a filibuster earlier this week to advance it from its second stage of consideration. The final stage, what is known as the “final reading,” is generally viewed as a formal matter. However, Chambers, a liberal who represents a district in Omaha, has been waging procedural war to stall it.
He has essentially gummed up the entire legislative pipeline, which includes all sorts of proposals aside from the winner-take-all bill that legislators would like to get done in the last few days of the session. The Nebraska legislature has three days left to complete its agenda.
“I don’t like the bill, and I am going to do all I can to defeat it,” Chambers told TPM Thursday. “If we get to the end of a session and there are very important things, important to the individual senators, and there’s one thing out there that might stop them from getting where they want to go, I ask them which is more important? This thing, that the Republican Party wants, that is anti-democratic or your particular proposition.”
Chambers, the longest serving member of the Nebraska legislature, has a way of winning these long-shot crusades. He was the face of the movement to pass legislation banning the death penalty in Nebraska, where he pulled together the unlikely coalition that overrode Ricketts’ veto.
Chambers rejected arguments by LB 10’s supporters that Nebraska should have a system like most of the rest of the country.
“You’ve got to be willing to cut that new trail. As that poet said, travel the road less traveled,” Chambers said.
TPM illustration by Christine Frapech.