Posted by Robert Moore on November 24, 2015 at 1:53 PM
The Nebraska State Legislature: A Local Perspective
I’ve seen open primaries happen in action. And yes, they work.
As a high school student in suburban Columbus, Ohio, I was a bit of a social studies geek, and I entertained a bit of a dream of “studying abroad” in Nebraska when I was in college. This is because Nebraska is home to the only unicameral, nonpartisan legislature in the country.
Upon graduation from college, I was afforded the opportunity to move to Omaha, Nebraska to enlist for a year of national service as an AmeriCorps, VISTA volunteer. I would spend the next two and a half years in Nebraska, working in local government and then moving into the advocacy world, eventually serving as an organizer (and part-time lobbyist) for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.
Now before I moved to Nebraska, I worked on a campaign for redistricting reform in the state of Ohio. Ohio is a state with bitter partisan politics. This campaign was led by the League of Women Voters after Republican lawmakers ran an extremely secretive redistricting process in 2010, going as far as to hide staffers working on redistricting in a secret hotel room termed “the bunker.” This is no news in Ohio: state politics are incredibly partisan, with “public hearings” often being tightly controlled by the majority party and minority party members having little to no power to propose legislation or impact legislation when it is on the floor.
Contrast this with Nebraska. I was blown away when I learned about Nebraska’s nonpartisan, top-two primary system. In Nebraska, you don’t run with a party label on the ballot. In addition, all candidates run on the same ballot and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election.
This practice is buttressed by other important institutions. First, the Nebraska legislature does not have party caucusing or party leaders like majority leaders or whips. This allows each senator to make up her own mind about which policies will best support the people of Nebraska. Additionally, votes for committee and legislative leadership happen on a secret ballot, allowing for senatorial independence from outside interests in choosing committee leadership. This incentivizes senators to choose leadership who will create an open process and will give them the time of day rather than leadership who will parrot the party platform. It also allows for minority party members to take on leadership roles. Of the 14 major committee chairmanships in the Nebraska legislature right now, five are held by democrats, even though Republicans outnumber Democrats in the legislature by a 36-12 margin.
Also, legislative agenda-setting is distributed. Each bill introduced by each senator is guaranteed a hearing and each senator gets to designate one bill each session as a “priority bill,” meaning it is guaranteed debate on the floor.
These institutions have allowed senators to put forth policy that helps the people as a whole, even if it conflicts with the party platform. This has resulted in a gas tax increase, drivers licenses awarded to children of undocumented immigrants, and a death penalty repeal, all in the past year, all over the governor’s vetoes.
More states should learn from Nebraska. Just last week, my home state passed limited redistricting reform. I hope that this is a sign that Ohio is ready to start putting partisanship aside and putting the people first.
Rob Moore is a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. After graduation, he plans to return to Ohio to fight for civic reform and economic justice.