Preserving Nonpartisanship in the Unicameral
Nebraska's unique one-house legislature faces challenges in the upcoming session (set to convene Jan. 3), testing our 90-year democratic experiment. Originally designed to shift power from political elites to everyday citizens, today's Unicameral encounters complex challenges like an increase in partisanship and unprecedented obstruction within the nonpartisan body. Nonpartisan Nebraska addresses these issues, upholding Nebraska’s tradition of political independence and innovation.
Former U.S. Senator George W. Norris, a pioneer of nonpartisan reform and the first inductee into the Nebraska Hall of Fame, envisioned a unicameral legislature as a direct response to the populist desire for inclusive, transparent governance. Changing from a traditional bicameral structure helped ensure every Nebraskan's voice is heard, free from the two-party monopoly over political participation in America. Yet, as we move further into the 21st century, these early ideals of a nonpartisan Unicameral are being tested in new and complex ways.
Lacking a second house to "check" legislation, the Unicameral was carefully calibrated to protect the independence of the people's house. Its rules and governance emphasize nonpartisanship (i.e. no majority or minority leaders, no party caucuses, and legislative leaders elected by ballot vote) and grant significant rights to individual senators.
These elements are integral to the Unicameral's framework, promoting balanced, transparent, and inclusive decision-making. This structure promotes well-crafted legislation that garners support based on merit, not whether or not the introducer has a "D" or an "R" or any other letter next to their name. While this framework was meticulously designed for nonpartisanship, recent trends indicate a cultural drift from these foundational ideals.
Without party control, lawmakers have the liberty to independently analyze, debate, and amend legislation, free from the constraints of party whips or the need for leadership approval, which may not always align with their constituents' best interests.
Critics might argue that a nonpartisan legislature risks unclear policy direction and legislative stagnation, as party structure often mobilizes action on major issues. However, Nebraska's experience counters this by showing that nonpartisanship fosters thoughtful policymaking, with legislators free from rigid party lines, leading to greater adaptability and consensus-building. This approach, focusing on broad coalitions, proves more sustainable and effective (and simply more respectable) in the long run.
Lawmakers' freedom also comes from nonpartisan elections. Unlike most states, Nebraska uses a top-two open primary (a reform approved by voters alongside the Unicameral Amendment in 1934). In this system, all candidates compete on the same ballot in the primary election, regardless of registered party. This allows over one-fifth of Nebraska’s registered independents to participate equally in our publicly funded primary elections.
The top-two open primary system also promotes more competitive elections. In 'swing districts', the general election outcome is often all but predetermined by closed partisan primaries, rendering the actual voting more of a formality than a true campaign. Similar to other nonpartisan elections, like those for school board or city council, candidates’ party affiliations are not listed on the ballot, although party registration is publicly available and widely reported by the media.
Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed the Unicameral continually shift toward more divisiveness and obstruction. A 290% increase in cloture motions over the past ten years and record-breaking campaign spending have made the Unicameral more divisive and less collegial than ever in its 90-year history. There's been a shift from genuine debates to what seems like scripted remarks for the cameras, or time wasting in an effort to filibuster legislation. Genuine, engaging debate among lawmakers has unfortunately become far more rare.
All of this is compounded by the loss of experienced legislators who have faced term-limits en mass, forcing experienced, effective state lawmakers out after only two four-year terms (with a chance to run again after four years). The first Legislature impacted was the 99th Legislature in 2005 as newly elected second-term senators became the first "lame duck senators" (with no election to hold them accountable); the 101st Legislature in 2009 was the first to welcome a new class of lawmakers who may not have otherwise been elected, if not for term-limits. The data clearly shows that party polarization and negative partisanship began to climb soon after the limit took effect and there's no knowing how far these metrics will go.
In light of these challenges, Nonpartisan Nebraska urges both the public and legislators to recommit to the Unicameral's purpose: serving the people of Nebraska above partisan interests. To do that, lawmakers must maintain the Legislature's nonpartisan rules, including the use of ballot votes for leadership elections.
Nonpartisan Nebraska encourages lawmakers to think carefully and research before committing to any changes, and carefully consider the profound and lasting impact the rules can have on the integrity of lawmaking in the state for generations to come.
Find your state senator on the Nebraska Legislature's website here. Consider sending them a personal email about why you believe Nebraska should keep the two-parties out of the Nebraska Legislature.