Posted by Russell Daniels on July 02, 2015 at 3:51 PM
How Nebraskans think about their unicameral, nonpartisan political system
Omaha, Nebraska. Home of great steak, Warren Buffet and a truly unique political structure unlike any other in the United States. Nebraska has a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature that has allowed motions from both parties to be passed in recent years.
Progressive reforms like repealing the death penalty, increasing rights for gay and lesbian workers and expanding the use of medical marijuana have all gotten traction in Nebraska! What?!?! Nebraska?! That's a red state! How is that possible? How is this madness happening?!
Nebraska's unicameral and nonpartisan system was most recently explored by Open Primaries Intern, Samantha Serrano. So, when I was given the chance to spend some time in Omaha, I decided I wanted to speak with some real Nebraskans and get their perspective.
I sat down with Jim Carroll, a retired chemistry professor at The University of Nebraska, Omaha Campus. Carroll has lived in Omaha for over 30 years. He was first drafted to be a poll worker. In Nebraska, working the polls is like jury duty and if drafted you must serve for four consecutive elections.
"I saw a young woman who was frustrated by the poll worker that was head of that station, and I thought "Gee, young voters shouldn't get frustrated voting," said Carroll. So now he volunteers as a poll worker when he can.
In the past he's been registered as both a republican and a democrat and about a year ago he decided to get out of the partisan game and register as nonpartisan. " I didn't want either party to think that I supported the approaches that they had. I support candidates, not parties."
Because of Carroll's nonpartisan registration, he's a big fan of Nebraska's unicameral, nonpartisan structure. Carroll spoke on the unicameral system: "Representatives can't point to members of the other house to blame them, because they're all responsible for the legislation. Everything is read publicly and each piece of legislation goes through three readings which slows things down. So, they're not making hasty decisions." He then talked about combining the unicameral system with a nonpartisan system: "In a state ballot, when we vote for our representatives in the unicameral they're not on the ballot as republicans or democrats. We vote and the top two vote-getters go on to the main election. So, you're running non-partisan, even though people are known to have a party affiliation."
Carroll points out that many recent pieces of legislation (i.e. Repealing the death penalty) would not have had any chance of passing in a bicameral, partisan system. He also spoke on the recent push by partisan forces to make Nebraska's system a little more partisan; "I'm really proud of the legislature. There was a motion to have the committee chairs determined by parties..a creeping, let's get the parties more involved in this process...and the unicameral rejected that."
How has Nebraska been able to avoid the partisan trend? How have they been able to operate and have opposite party members work together and pass legislation from both parties? Progressive stuff, right? Well, they've been able to by keeping a system in place that's been in place for the last seventy years.
A system that recognizes the importance, balance and healthiness of a nonpartisan structure. A system that takes the time to explore issues publicly and have real debate where actual solutions are offered. A system that works for the voters and not for the parties.
My time in Nebraska has been eye opening. I've been so inspired by the amount of political knowledge, the openness and the willingness to listen and truly communicate with one another that a wide variety of Nebraskans have demonstrated to me. If only all the other states had adopted these reforms 70 years ago..then we would have some more hope for real progress now.
Russell is a Communications Associate for Open Primaries. He has been a Development Associate for Indepentdentvoting.org for the last 4 years. Russell holds an MFA in acting from The University of Houston's Professional Theater Training Program. When not fighting for structural reform or acting around the country, Russell resides in NYC with his cat Louie.