LINCOLN — Nebraskans could be heading to the polls in 2016 a month earlier than usual for the primary election.
Some state lawmakers and leaders of both major political parties have begun talking about the possibility of moving up the primary for the next presidential election year.
State Sen. John Murante of Gretna is promoting the idea because, he said, an earlier primary could attract more attention from presidential candidates.
Nebraska's current primary — scheduled for the first Tuesday after the second Monday in May — is one of the latest in the presidential race.
“By the time Nebraska rolls around, the race for president is almost always over,” Murante said. “We are at the end of the process. Therefore, we are irrelevant.”
He wants to move the primary to the first Tuesday after the second Monday in April — which would put Nebraska closer to the middle of the presidential race.
Murante said he is finding many people warm to the idea.
“The more we talk about it, the more steam it is picking up,” he said.
Murante, a Republican, said there is interest from both Republicans and Democrats. Support from both parties would be needed to change the state law setting the primary date.
Vince Powers, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said he has long favored the move.
He proposed the same idea in 2007 to increase Nebraska's relevance in the presidential race but was met with resistance from Republicans. Unable to change the primary date, the Democrats instead switched to a caucus system for choosing delegates to the national party convention.
Nebraska Democrats plan caucuses again in 2016, but Powers said he would still like to see an earlier primary date.
“We think Nebraska should be relevant,” he said. “I've always felt that Nebraskans have the most common sense in the country, and our voice should be heard.”
J.L. Spray, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party, said an earlier primary would give the state more voice as well as help the state parties meet deadlines set by their national parties.
The national GOP convention in 2016 will probably be held in late June. That means Nebraska Republicans could face a real time crunch trying to choose delegates with a May primary.
A bill worked out by the two parties and introduced by Murante would give the parties more flexibility in how and when they chose delegates.
But Legislative Bill 1048 would also require that 80 percent of delegates be committed to a presidential candidate based on the primary election or caucus results. The parties would determine how the other slots were filled.
Current law has no requirement for delegates to abide by primary or caucus results.
Not everyone is on board with the idea of moving Nebraska's primary, though. Secretary of State John Gale, the state's top election official and a Republican, was noncommittal.
“There is too much up in the air between the national political parties and their game plans to know yet whether there is a need to change our Nebraska primary,” he said. “However, as the primary election date is set in state statute, it can certainly be changed by the Legislature.”
Gale noted that the move would involve more than just changing the election date.
Lawmakers would also have to move up other steps in the election process, such as the deadlines for candidates to file for office and for election officials to certify ballots.
Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, a Democrat and chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, was skeptical whether there was enough interest in the idea among legislators.
Vic Covalt, a former Nebraska Democratic Party chairman, said an earlier primary election would create too many problems for state and local races.
“Our entire electoral system is based on a May primary and a November general election,” he said. “Moving the primary isn't the answer. It just disrupts too much stuff.”
That disruption could be avoided by having a separate presidential primary, as is done in some states.
But Murante, Powers and others ruled out that possibility, saying two primary elections would be cost-prohibitive and most likely would reduce voter turnout.
Omaha Sens. Scott Lautenbaugh, a Republican, and Heath Mello, a Democrat, both said candidates and voters could adjust to an April primary as long as other deadlines were moved up.
“I don't see it as a major deterrent for people wanting to run for office,” Mello said.
State senators running for re-election would face the biggest difficulties because an April primary date would fall near the end of the legislative session.
The proposed change would put the 2016 primary on April 12. In 2018, it would be on April 10.
Legislative sessions in election years last 60 legislative days and typically wrap up in mid-April. The session this year is slated to end April 17.
But Mello said future legislative speakers could work around the primary when setting the schedule. Murante said he has not heard much concern from fellow lawmakers.
Although there is no legislative bill to change the primary, Murante said supporters are looking at offering the idea as an amendment to LB 1048.
He expects that a public hearing would be held on the amendment because it would be a significant change in the bill.