A change in Nebraska electoral system? - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, February 9, 2011 at 6:00 am / Updated at 9:27 am
Should state change electoral vote?

Barack Obama created a stir in 2008, when the then-aspiring presidential candidate made a rare stop in Omaha.

Two other political rock stars — Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Hillary Clinton — followed several months later.

For the first time in a long time, Nebraska was a blip on the national political radar.

There is a good chance all that ends this year.

Republicans have a significant edge in their effort to repeal the state's split-electoral vote process, which put the congressional district in the Omaha-metro area in play during the 2008 presidential race and awarded Obama, a Democrat, one electoral vote.

Republicans want a return to the winner-take-all system of awarding the state's electoral votes, and they want it done this year, ahead of the 2012 presidential race. If the vote, as expected, falls along party lines, the GOP has a clear road to victory.

They hold a 19-vote advantage in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature.

“This is the year to fix it,” said State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, an Omaha Republican who supports the change.

Democrats know they have a battle on their hands. State Sen. Bill Avery, a Lincoln Democrat, acknowledges that this is one issue where the votes could fall along party lines.

Republicans hold 34 of the state's 49 seats in the Nebraska Legislature, and many are held by rural lawmakers who have no stake in ensuring that the Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District stays in play, said Randy Adkins, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Omaha got those things. Nebraska didn't,” said Adkins.

Legislative Bill 21 is set for a public hearing Feb. 23 before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. It was introduced by State Sen. Beau McCoy, a Republican lawmaker from west Omaha.

The controversial process that allows Nebraska's electoral votes to be split by congressional district dates back to 1991, when Nebraska parted company with most of the rest of the nation. It has since survived several challenges by Republicans, who describe it as unfair.

However, momentum for the repeal effort stepped up after 2008, when Obama won an electoral vote in the Omaha district — the first time the state's electoral votes were split since the law was passed.

Obama's Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, captured Nebraska's four remaining electoral votes: two for winning the popular vote in the state's two other congressional districts, and two for winning the statewide tally.

David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, singled out Nebraska's 2nd District as one of his pet projects. He called it his “personal favorite target” in his book, “The Audacity to Win.”

Maine is the only other state that allows its electoral votes to be split. The others have winner-take-all systems, with the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote taking all of that state's electoral votes.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman says the state law is fundamentally unfair on a national level. He also says it subverts the intent of the Founding Fathers, who created the Electoral College.

He says Democrats can peel off a single electoral vote in a GOP-dominated state such as Nebraska, while Republicans have no chance of doing the same in Democratic strongholds such as California, which do have Republican-majority districts.

“When the rest of the country is willing to go our way, I'm willing to go that way,” he said.

Avery and others say the law was instrumental in getting Nebraskans excited about the 2008 presidential election. He said he hopes someone puts together information on how much of an impact the election had on Omaha's economy in 2008, noting that Obama opened three election offices in the state that year and hired staff.

It is no surprise that the issue is coming up this year, said Adkins, the political science professor.

State lawmakers also will be required this year to redraw the state's political boundaries, including its congressional districts. There is a strong chance that the Omaha-based district could become even more Democratic if Republican bastions of western Omaha or Sarpy County are moved into the 1st Congressional District.

The last thing Republicans want is to have the district in play again in the 2012 presidential race, with Obama once again opening up offices in the city and turning out Democratic voters.

That could make it tougher on Republican Rep. Lee Terry in the district, even though he's handily fended off his past two challengers.

“If this is passed, then clearly there is no reason for the president's campaign to be here. If it's not here, his campaign can't do things like voter registration, get out the vote and other efforts to help Democrats,” said Adkins.

Nebraska also won't attract any visits from political superstars.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1309, robynn.tysver@owh.com

Contact the writer: Robynn Tysver

robynn.tysver@owh.com    |   402-444-1309    |  

Robynn is Omaha.com's elections writer. She's covered presidential politics in Iowa's caucuses, and gubernatorial and Senate races in Nebraska.

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