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Nebraska could repeal its Electoral Voting law

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February 10, 2011

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

Omaha, NEBRASKA: Nebraska Republicans might be about to get rid of a long-standing sore spot in the state's politics. Following a 1991 law, Nebraska became one of only two states, along with Maine, to allow Presidential candidates to split electoral votes. That law has only come into play a single time, when Barack Obama won a single electoral vote in Omaha while the state's four remaining votes went to John McCain. However, the GOP has chafed at the law for as long as it's been around, insisting it's patently unfair.

Governor Dave Heineman, easily re-elected last fall, described it as an easy opportunity for Democrats that has no equivalent GOP edge. As the rest of the nation adheres to the all-or-nothing system where the winner of the popular vote across the state gets every electoral vote, there is no chance for Republican districts in overall Democratic states, such as California, to give their single vote to the more conservative candidate. Gov. Heineman was matter-of-fact about it; “When the rest of the country is willing to go our way, I'm willing to go that way.”[1]

Those on the other side point to the unusual split electoral vote system as Nebraska's only real way to attract serious attention from Presidential contenders. With only five votes and lacking coveted 'swing state' status, they fear that changing the law means Nebraska will be just another fly over state. Senator Bill Avery, a Democrat, recommended an impact study to measure just how big an economic boon the state saw when Obama, Hillary Clinton, and McCain all touched down during the 2008 race. University of Nebraska political scientist Randy Adkins, however, pointed out that the benefits of Presidential attention accrued largely to Omaha, the Democratically leaning city that makes up the state's 2nd Congressional District.

The bill, LB 21, sponsored by Republican Beau McCoy, gets its committee hearing on February 23, 2011. Thought Nebraska's unicameral legislature is officially nonpartisan, the GOP has a sizable numeric advantage and the vote, both in committee and on the floor, could go down on a party line vote. If Republicans succeed in repealing the two-decade old law, they expect to have the new rules in place for the 2012 Presidential election. Not only might such a change in Nebraska's interpretation of the Electoral College result in one more vote for the Republican candidate, by decreasing the attractiveness of Omaha to Democratic campaigns and thus lessening the attention the area receives from national political stars, state level Democratic candidates might have to contend with lower enthusiasm and turnout among their base.

Also on the legislature's table this year is the decennial matter of redistricting. While Nebraska has not gained a seat, population shifts likely mean that Republican trending potions of the 2nd District will be shifted into the larger 1st District, making Omaha and its environs even more solidly blue. Such a scenario makes adopting a single-winner electoral system even more of a priority for the GOP.