Winner-take-all falls short as two Republicans switch

April 12, 2016, 6:33 a.m. ·

Nebraska Legislature during final reading Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A move to return Nebraska to the winner-take-all system of Electoral College voting in presidential elections fell just short in the Legislature Tuesday.

It’s the Electoral College vote, not the popular vote, that determines who gets elected president. And every other state except Maine gives all its electoral votes to whoever wins the statewide popular vote. Not so Nebraska, where Barack Obama got one electoral vote in 2008 for winning the Omaha-area Second Congressional District, despite John McCain’s winning the state overall. Nebraska Republicans have tried more than a dozen times to change the 1991 law. They've come close before -- proposals to return to the winner-take-all system passed in 1995 and 1997, but were vetoed by then-Gov. Ben Nelson, a Democrat. This year, with Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts in office, the bill made it through two rounds of voting, and needed just one more vote to pass.

Sen. Bill Kintner, a registered Republican in the officially nonpartisan Unicameral, supported the measure. "I’m not sure who gets the advantage or doesn’t get the advantage always on this. But at least if this passes, you will have the majority rule of the state prevail," Kintner said. "For some of us, we think that’s a good idea. For some people, they think it’s bad that the majority rule prevail. I guess we’re going to find out here. In 48 states it prevails."

Sen. Dave Bloomfield, also a Republican, said when the split vote was originally approved, supporters predicted other states would see it more accurately represented voter sentiment, and would follow Nebraska’s lead. "Why on earth do not all these bastions of fairness come on board with us? We were told that’s what was going to happen," Bloomfield said.

Sen. Sue Crawford, a Democrat said that was in part because Nebraska’s Legislature is the only one elected and organized on a nonpartisan basis. "The reason it hasn’t happened in other states is that in any state that has a strong majority, the top party leaders of the majority party do not want it to happen, regardless of what the citizens want to happen," Crawford said. "And in every other state but Nebraska, the top party leaders really shape who gets into those state legislatures and the party caucuses shape the votes that happen in those state legislatures."

Sen. Ernie Chambers, the only senator not registered with a party, said the Nebraska Republican Party opposes district elections because it has more voters except in the Omaha area. "The Republican Party wants it that way. They have a clear majority statewide, but they don’t have a clear majority in Congressional District Two. So they want to nullify the advantage that the majority voters in District Two have, by making their candidate, as far as an elector, run against all of the members of the other party throughout the state," Chambers said.

After two hours of debate, supporters of the bill moved for cloture, to cut off debate and vote on the bill. Cloture requires 33 votes, and on second-round debate a week ago, supporters got 34. But this time, they got only 32.

The cloture vote on winner-take-all, with party breakdown

Two senators, both registered Republicans, switched and voted against cloture. One of them, Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, said he liked the idea candidates might spend money and time in the Omaha metro:

"I’m neither hot or cold on this issue. I think you can make rational, positive reasons on both sides of it," Krist said. However, he added, if candidates are going to come to Nebraska they’re going to come to a media center like Omaha, or a concentration of voters, like the Second District.

The other switcher, Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue, mentioned campaign time and attention as well. But Garrett also mentioned his medical marijuana bill, which fell short on a cloture vote last week. "I had the votes, and some guys flipped on me late in the game from pressure from outside the glass," Garrett said.

"Outside the glass" means outside the legislative chamber. Garrett confirmed opposition to his medical marijuana bill, LB643, from Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson, both Republicans, contributed to his switch on LB10, the Electoral College winner-take all bill. "LB643 was about people – sick and ailing people. We had the opportunity to help them, and we didn’t," Garrett said. He added that he never supported the Electoral College bill, but reluctantly went along with it until after medical marijuana failed, at which point he decided "I’m going to vote my conscience here."

Asked for reaction to Garrett, Ricketts said "Senators make decisions all the time, they go back and forth on different bills. That’s part of the legislative process…that’s part of the way it goes."

Ricketts said he will support winner-take-all legislation when it’s introduced in the future. A spokeswoman for Peterson said the attorney general was not involved in the Electoral College issue.

In other action Tuesday, without debate the legislature gave final approval to a number of bills. Among them was one giving $50 million from the cash reserve to jump start expressway construction and county bridge repair. And another gives the Game and Parks Commission authority to raise fees for hunting and fishing permits and park entry permits.