THE NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE
Over 85 years of nonpartisan, unicameral government in Nebraska.
When Nebraskans voted 2-to-1 in 1934 to abolish the bicameral legislature and operate the legislative branch as unicameral body with lawmakers elected in a nonpartisan open primary election, Nebraska lawmakers took the directive from voters for a nonpartisan process seriously.
In the first session in 1937, the nonpartisan rules of procedure lawmakers adopted were unlike those in other states, which give partisan leadership and political caucasus a political monopoly over over the lawmaking process. Many of the nonpartisan rules first used in the maiden session in 1937 are still used today, including the use of a ballot vote (rather than party-line vote) for electing the speaker and committee chairs.
WHAT MAKES THE UNICAMERAL "NONPARTISAN?"
Three key reforms, or pillars, work together to make the Nebraska Legislature the only nonpartisan state legislature in the United States: The first is the use of nonpartisan legislative elections, the second is the small, one-house unicameral structure, and the third is the nonpartisan rules, customs and traditions the Legislature has used since becoming a unicameral in 1937.
When lawmakers run for office in Nebraska they compete in a nonpartisan, open-primary in which all candidates run on a single ballot, just like for school board or city council. Then, the top-two vote getters (regardless of party) complete in the general election. The party affiliation of a candidate is publicly available and well-known but not included on the ballot. Voters vote for the person, not the party.
Unlike all other US states, Nebraska has a unicameral legislature. This means the state's legislative branch isn’t divided into a "House" and "Senate" but instead one group of 49 lawmakers are elected for up to two consecutive 4 year terms.
Having a small body of only 49-members makes the process more transparent increasing accountability to the people. The lawmaking process is straightforward, and citizens don’t have to follow two competing pieces of legislation and two different legislative chambers (often with entirely different rules and processes in each). Having a small body also makes it more economical for lawmakers to have professional and expert staff, more resources per senator, and more freedom to think independently in representing their constituents.
Nonpartisan Rules of Procedure
No longer able to rely on a second house to “check” legislation, the new unicameral had to develop a process that would prevent lawmaking too quickly or from allowing partisan or special interest groups from exerting too much control over the small new legislature. The Legislature uses a system of rules that, among other things, radically decentralized procedural power and rejects traditional partisan procedures that are used by other state legislatures without a second thought. From the use of a ballot vote for officer elections, the use of a committee-on-committees to determine which lawmakers serve on which committee and a referencing committee to determining the placement of bills, to the strong emphasis put on the individual rights of lawmakers, regardless of party, to participate in debate and to offer amendments, the Nebraska Legislature's process bucks the trend and sets an example for other states in how a "nonpartisan" process can not only work, but work well.