For four hours in 2016, state Senator Ernie Chambers spoke on the floor of the Nebraska Capitol in order to kill a bill championed by the Republican Party. Dressed in blue jeans and a short-sleeved sweatshirt, Chambers—an expert in Nebraska’s legislative rules and one of the state’s few Black lawmakers—ran down the clock. He talked about mountain lion hunting, the deterioration of his own memory, and whether or not the famed Nebraska author Willa Cather was a lesbian. “I’m having so much fun, it has to be a sin,” Chambers recalled after he successfully thwarted the bill.
At issue was whether Nebraska would continue to split its Electoral College votes like Maine or if it would move to a winner-take-all system like the other 48 states. Barack Obama embarrassed Nebraska Republicans when he carried Omaha’s electoral vote in 2008, and the state GOP wanted to prevent Hillary Clinton from doing the same. Previous attempts to squash vote splitting failed, but four years ago Republicans dominated the legislature. Initially, it looked like they would get their wish. But Chambers’s filibuster helped maintain Nebraska’s unusual system.
Nebraska began splitting its Electoral College votes in 1991 after state Senator DiAnna Schimek introduced a bill that allowed Nebraska’s congressional districts to individually count their presidential votes. Schimek, a registered Democrat, had Republicans cosponsor the bill to give it bipartisan support.
“There is nothing in this bill in any way, shape, or form that is politically motivated,” stated one of the bill’s Republican cosponsors, David Bernard-Stevens, during a 1991 hearing. “To have an election in a particular state that basically says that the minority voters, whether it be Republican or Democrat, irregardless [sic] of which state we’re talking about, that the minority voters will have no one representing their vote at the national level at the Electoral College because of traditions brought up winner-take-all to me does not meet the rule principles of democratic elections that we hold so dearly.”
Although the state heavily favors Republicans, the Omaha-based second district has twice awarded its electoral vote to a Democrat—Obama in 2008 and Joe Biden this year. And for a brief moment, it appeared that Omaha’s Biden vote could determine the presidential race.
Not surprisingly, both the Nebraska Republican and the powerful Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, support a return to the winner-take-all format. Republican legislators have tried to make that happen at least 16 times since 1991, according to the Omaha World-Herald. When I asked Schimek if Republicans would try again, she told me, “I feel rest assured that there will be a bill again soon.”
Nebraska is home to the nation’s only nonpartisan, single-house legislature. In recent years, however, the body has become more polarized, after Ricketts spent his own money on local races to oust more moderate Republican incumbents who voted against his policies. In 2016, Al Davis, then a state senator and a registered Republican, voted to make Nebraska a winner-take-all state. Davis, who had irked his party by voting against the death penalty and was up for reelection at the time, said he supported the bill, because “I was running as a Republican, and I was getting pressure from the Republican Party to do so.”
He now regrets that vote and wishes he had resisted GOP pressure. After Biden won Omaha, Davis congratulated Schimek for making it possible. Davis said that after he left the legislature, he became a strong believer in “liberating congressional districts.” He supports Nebraska’s current electoral model, because it brings the state money and attention. “If you liberate those districts, people are going to go there,” he said.
State Senator Sue Crawford, a Democrat who represents an area just outside Omaha’s city limits, said that Nebraska’s electoral system can benefit everyone in the state, not just Democrats. Instead of ignoring Nebraska as a for-sure Republican win, splitting the votes makes the state more competitive, which brings in revenue and attention from both political parties.
“We were important,” said Democrat Kim Robak, a lobbyist and former lieutenant governor. “Donald Trump came here in the waning hours of the election. Money was spent in that district from both sides. It puts us on the radar screen. We are no longer a flyover state that [national political parties] can ignore.”
A filibuster-proof coalition will be required to change the allotment of Nebraska’s Electoral College votes. To prevent a state senator from stonewalling, a bill would need 33 votes in the 49-member body. There are probably just enough Democrats and moderate Republicans in the legislature to prevent the GOP from abolishing the splitting of the votes in the next session, but margins are slim.
“There will be pressure applied by the state Republican Party to change the electoral selection method back to winner-take-all,” said Greg Adams, a Republican who served as speaker of the legislature in 2013. But doing so will be difficult. “Our distribution methodology is a bit like the Electoral College itself, pretty hard to change.”
Another option for state Republicans is pass a ballot initiative, an idea that’s already being floated. Ricketts, a multimillionaire from a family worth billions, has dropped his money on ballot initiatives in the past. He spent $300,000 to successfully reinstate the death penalty and $250,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to oppose casino gambling. If Republicans prioritize changing the way the state allocates electoral votes, then it wouldn’t be surprising to see the governor and wealthy party backers put the issue on the ballot.
“If you were to ask me what the what the best chance of getting it done, it would be through an initiative that was adequately funded,” said veteran lobbyist Walt Radcliffe. “Nebraska is a cheap state to fund. You know, a couple million dollars goes a long ways here.”
For a ballot initiative to succeed, deft marketing will be required. Like the unicameral legislature, Nebraska’s electoral distribution is an eccentric feature that’s become part of the state’s identity. But Nebraska is very conservative, and 91 of the state’s 93 counties voted for Trump. Mailers and robocalls emphasizing that Nebraska’s voting methods helped elect a Democratic president would find a receptive audience.
Even if Nebraska’s electoral allocation stays in place for the immediate future, Biden’s win gives Republicans further incentive to gerrymander Omaha’s district in a way that would make it more difficult for Democrats to win there in the future. The second district is one of the most competitive in the country. A decade ago, shortly after Obama carried Omaha, Republicans gerrymandered the district to protect an at-risk congressional seat. Next year, redistricting will happen again, and Omaha will be a prime target.
Omaha’s providing a vote for Biden showed how efforts by local representatives like Schimek and Chambers can affect national politics. When Nebraska’s electoral splits comes up in debate in the next legislative session, there will be more on the line than a low-population state’s quirky voting system. What will be determined is whether a politically unconventional state can remain independent from its dominant party.