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'Voters have a right to know': Resolution would add party labels to Nebraska legislative candidates

Nebraska only state with officially nonpartisan legislature
Posted at 7:07 PM, Feb 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-07 20:07:35-05

LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — For more than 85 years, when Nebraskans have voted for their state senators in the Unicameral, all they see are the candidates’ names on the ballot — and that’s it.

Sen. Julie Slama wants to add more information, specifically the party to which a candidate belongs. She's proposed an amendment to the state constitution to change the law.

The Republican from southeast Nebraska says it’s about transparency to voters.

“These have meanings with voters and voters have a general understanding where a political candidate stands on the issues they care about. This is information voters have a right to know in the voting booth when they cast their ballot,” said Slama.

Slama pointed to data that fewer people vote in legislative races than other races.

“It can easily be argued that fewer Nebraskans are voting in legislative elections because they don’t have a candidate's party affiliation readily available to them on the ballot,” said Slama.

But the legislation got push back from four former state senators — two of each party — who invoked the memory of George Norris; a former state senator, congressman and U.S. Senator from Nebraska, who helped facilitate Nebraska’s non-partisan system. They say this resolution goes against what Nebraska's most impactful legislator wanted.

“Why in the world would we want to abandon something that works so well?” asked former state senator DiAnna Schimek.

Former state senator Burke Harr said in his experience, political lines in Lincoln are drawn by urban versus rural representation and people don’t want their legislature to be like Congress.

“I don’t recall anybody ever saying to me, 'if you just were a little more partisan, if you were a little bit more like Washington D.C., things would work a lot better down in that capital.' I heard just the opposite of that,” said Harr.

One supporter said that Nebraska's nonpartisan experiment has clearly failed and that it's time to “end the charade." While Slama didn’t go that far, she believes voters should revisit the question of nonpartisan legislative elections.

Nebraska has had a nonpartisan legislature since 1934. Along with nonpartisan elections, the Unicameral does not have caucuses and has members of both parties in positions of power as committee chairs.

Westin Miller of Civic Nebraska worries about a slippery slope.

“I think it takes some extreme rose-colored glasses to not guess what the obvious next step is, which is a fundamental restructuring of how this legislature operates,” said Miller.

Slama says the resolution would not change the way primaries are done for candidates, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would still advance to the general election.

Because it is a constitutional amendment, if it is passed by the Unicameral, the question would be in front of voters in the 2022 election before it becomes law.

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