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Posted by Jesse Shayne on September 26, 2016 at 3:32 PM

Drey Samuelson: Time for ‘the Nebraska experiment’ to go nationwide

This article was written by Drey Samuelson for the Obama World-Herald

The author, who grew up in Pender, Nebraska, is former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and co-founder of TakeItBack.Org.

Politics in America is broken — but Nebraska has a remarkably innovative way to fix it.

There is no perfect solution, of course — democracy is inherently messy — but Nebraskans provided an effective remedy when, in 1934, they passed the very consequential ballot initiative that, among other things, eliminated partisan elections for its Legislature. The favorable result of “the Nebraska experiment,” as it’s been called, has been evident for quite some time, and it’s a solution that other states — and Congress itself — would be wise to copy.

One of the principal benefits of its passage was that it eliminated political parties’ ability to divide the Nebraska Legislature into two formal warring factions, a characteristic that sets it apart from every other state legislative body in America and from the Congress of the United States.

And this isn’t just an abstract concept to me, as I’ve witnessed the ugly polarization and hyper-partisanship in Congress with my own eyes, having just retired after serving 28 years as the chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. In fact, the state of our political system was so appalling to me that I helped found a nonpartisan organization, TakeItBack.Org, with the design to use ballot initiatives to change the political dynamic in individual states, with the hope that the reforms eventually percolate up to Congress.

One of the main problems our organization wanted to target was our increasingly partisan political system. Having grown up in Pender and once been employed by the Nebraska Legislature, I believed that the Nebraska model provided an answer to the increasing problem of legislative hyper-partisanship.

And so, along with a group of Republicans, Democrats and independents, we decided to pursue a ballot initiative that would change the South Dakota Constitution to Nebraska’s nonpartisan election system. To our delight, 40,000 South Dakotans signed petitions to place the measure on the general election ballot, where it will appear as Amendment V.

Attempting to change the constitution of a state is not something you do cavalierly, but the evidence is substantial that this system of electing state legislators works in my home state.

For instance, in the Nebraska Legislature:

  • Individual senators are not restricted from leadership roles simply because they’re not in the majority party, a fact which separates the Nebraska Legislature from every other legislative body in the country, including Congress.
  • Public policy isn’t made behind the closed doors of partisan political caucuses, because — again, only in the Nebraska Legislature — they don’t exist.
  • Senators are free to vote their respective consciences, as opposed to the party line, and have no fear of losing their committee assignments automatically if they cross party leaders, as happens in other state legislatures.
  • Scandals are much more difficult to “sweep under the rug” because the Nebraska Legislature isn’t controlled by the majority party, so party discipline — which is often used to hide impropriety — is minimal.

But the most important proof of the effectiveness of Nebraska’s nonpartisan approach comes from its citizens themselves: A poll of 600 Nebraskans done by the Tarrance Group in October 2015 showed that a stunning 62 percent approved of the Nebraska Legislature’s work, with only 26 percent disapproving.

Contrast those numbers with a poll done in January 2016 by Public Policy Polling, which asked the same question of 679 South Dakotans, with 36 percent approving of the South Dakota Legislature, 35 percent disapproving. The difference in the two states’ numbers is telling.

This is true: Nonpartisan elections and nonpartisan governance have been proven to work in Nebraska — and to work very well. Confirmation of their success doesn’t come just from polls, but from the fact that they are still in place 82 years after they were enacted.

Americans are clearly sick to death of gridlocked hyper-partisanship, and Nebraska has provided the blueprint to build a new, more effective system for both elections and governance. It’s time for the rest of America to follow it.


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