By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN – A Nebraska legislative committee is considering a bill that would change the way Nebraska distributes its electoral votes.
Sen. Charlie Janssen, R-Fremont, who is running for governor next year, introduced the bill that would award all five of Nebraska’s electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote, abandoning the current system of selecting one elector per congressional district and the remaining two electors by statewide popular vote.
Janssen said he decided to sponsor the bill this year because with the presidential election over (and all five electoral votes having gone to Romney), “It’s really not a sour grapes issue now.”
Currently, Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that dole out electoral votes by congressional district rather than a “winner take all” approach. A divided electoral vote has only happened once, in 2008, when Barack Obama picked up one electoral vote in Omaha even though he lost the statewide vote.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Michigan and Pennsylvania are looking to do the opposite of Nebraska: allocate their electoral votes by congressional district. A push to change the way electoral votes are awarded gained steam after President Obama won almost every battleground state in November.
Plans to change the electoral system have emerged in about a half dozen states, including Virginia, Ohio, Florida and Michigan — which went for Obama even though they’re solidly Republican on the state level.
Wisconsin’s governor briefly expressed interest in going to a proportional system, which would have left Obama and Mitt Romney with five electoral votes each in November. But Republicans in Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida have retreated amid allegations they’re trying to rig the vote in the wake of Romney’s loss, while the GOP continues to consider the idea in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said earlier this year that changing the rules was something Republicans “ought to be looking at” in that vote Democratic in presidential elections but go Republican on the state level. The Constitution gives states the power to change the way they dole out electoral votes.
Janssen said Nebraska adopted its current system amid claims it would bring more attention and campaign dollars to the state, but instead the system reduced Nebraska’s national clout and was an incentive to gerrymander. He said since 2000, 35 states have considered changing to Nebraska’s system, but none have done so.
A similar winner-take-all bill died in the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee last year after the panel deadlocked 4-4. But the makeup of the committee has since changed, and Sen. Jim Scheer, R-Norfolk, appears to be the swing vote. Scheer said after the hearing Wednesday he isn’t leaning one way or another; during the public hearing on the bill Wednesday he signaled he doesn’t think “splitting votes is a bad thing” but it only works if all states do it.
Sen. John Murante, R-Gretna, said it’s gotten to the point where the average Republican believes Democrats have to cheat to win elections and the average Democrat believes Republicans are trying to suppress votes to win.
The governor’s spokeswoman, Jen Rae Hein, said in general, the governor favors the principle that Nebraska participate in the same system as other states – in other words, a winner-take-all system.
Secretary of State John Gale testified in support of Janssen’s bill, saying when he was first elected he thought Nebraska’s “unique system” made sense, but after studying it closer he questions whether it makes sense nationally. Dividing up votes proportionally makes it more likely the presidential election could end up deadlocked or thrown to the House of Representatives because so many third-party candidates could focus on certain districts and no candidate would be able to round up 270 electoral votes.
Former Lincoln Sen. DiAnna Schimek testified against Janssen’s bill, which would repeal the law she proposed over 20 years ago. She proposed the system because at the time, there was talk of dispensing with the Electoral College and she thought it a “nice compromise.” But she acknowledged that if every state used Nebraska’s system, it could create problems.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to happen,” she said. “I’ve come to understand the big states are not going to do this.”
Michael Kelly, a retired government teacher who lives in the second congressional district, said he was “elated” when Schimek’s bill passed and in 2008, “for the first time in 37 years my vote was used to elect the president.” But he was disappointed that outrage afterward prompted gerrymandering that he thinks prevented the district from voting blue in November.
“Fairness was taken away,” he told lawmakers. “In future census distribution, look to where people live, not political party.”
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