Nebraska lawmakers begin debate on winner-take-all system

AP News
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Posted: Feb 23, 2015 6:00 PM

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Republicans in Nebraska — one of just two states that allow their electoral votes for president to be split — want to reinstate a winner-take-all system, but Democratic lawmakers argued Monday that such a change would remove any incentive for national candidates to visit the rural state.

Conservative Nebraska is typically one of the safest locks for Republican presidential nominees, who haven't lost the statewide popular vote since Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson carried it in 1964. However, under the current system, only two of the state's votes in the Electoral College go to the statewide winner with the other three divvied up by congressional district.

That means it's possible for a Democrat to pick off a vote in the Electoral College, as President Barack Obama did in 2008. Maine, the other state that can divvy up its delegates, has backed only Democrats in the popular vote since 1992 .

Sen. Beau McCoy, an Omaha Republican who introduced the measure seeking a winner-take-all presidential vote, said the current system allows candidates to only speak to districts that are competitive while ignoring the state as a whole.

"Nebraska is at a disadvantage until we play by the same rules as everybody else," said McCoy, a former candidate for governor. "... This wasn't a trend that caught on."

But Democrats and some moderate Republicans quickly objected, expressing fear the bill would remove any incentive presidential candidates might have to visit Omaha as the 2016 field starts to take shape. Nebraska is heavily Republican, but parts of Omaha lean Democratic.

Obama and former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin made brief appearances in Omaha in 2008, but rural Nebraska hasn't seen a candidate in decades.

The bill's prospects are unclear, but the GOP expanded its advantage in the November elections and now holds 35 of the Legislature's 49 seats.

Nebraska split its electoral votes for the first time ahead of the 2008 election, when Obama captured one from the 2nd Congressional District in Omaha on his way to the presidency. Republican Mitt Romney won the district along with the rest of the state in 2012.

In November, despite a GOP sweep nationally, eight-term Republican U.S. Rep. Lee Terry lost to Democrat Brad Ashford in the congressional district that includes Omaha. The city also borders Iowa, with its first-in-the-nation caucuses which routinely draw national candidates.

"Nebraska's not going to be a swing state anytime soon, but we do have one swing electoral vote," said Sen. Sue Crawford, a Democrat from Bellevue. "I think we should use that to our advantage."

Senators have introduced similar measures a dozen times since 1991, when former Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson signed the current system into law. All but three of those bills were introduced before the 2008 election.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus, a Republican, pointed to a 2011 resolution passed by the state party's central committee that described the winner-take-all issue as a "litmus test" for GOP candidates. Schumacher said lawmakers should act independently with a focus on state policy rather than party ideology.

"This is all about a partisan clique trying to get traction in this body," he said.

Secretary of State John Gale, a Republican, has said Nebraska was at the leading edge of an experiment that never gained traction in other states.

If all states had joined, Gale said, third-party candidates could gain a foothold in individual districts and prevent major party candidates from reaching the 270 electoral votes they need to win the presidency. In that scenario, the U.S. House of Representatives would pick the winner.

The Nebraska Republican Party has endorsed the bill, arguing that congressional districts can be manipulated by politicians, and a winner-take-all system avoids that problem. Nebraska's boundaries were last redrawn in 2011 - with Democrats accusing Republicans of gerrymandering.

Former state Sen. DiAnna Schimek, a Democrat whose bill created the current system, said Nebraska's practice encourages more grass-roots activity. Schimek pointed to the state's independent streak, which includes a nonpartisan Legislature and publicly owned utility system.