Why you should care
Because it’s hard not to be partisan in a party-controlled system.
Gridlock, partisanship, corruption, favors for moneyed interests. Presidential debates, like the Democrats’ latest effort last night, often touch on how fed up U.S. voters are with politics as usual. Well, what if when Americans had had enough of their elective representatives, they threw out the bums — all of them, or at least an entire chamber of them, abolishing a state’s entire House of Representatives? Turns out Nebraskans did exactly that decades ago, by voting to amend their state’s constitution. Since then, Nebraska’s legislature has worked differently from any other state’s — with, some say, the emphasis on “worked.”
Now, in a hyperpartisan nation in which almost 70 percent of Americans express anger at their political system, a state best known for corn and college football is attracting renewed interest for something else: its civil political culture. Nebraska’s long-running top two “open” primary format, in which the top two candidates from any party advance from a single primary, has been adopted by Washington and, more recently, by California. And it’s become the model example for a new “open primaries” movement that is starting to gain some traction with frustrated citizens in other states, from New York to Arizona to South Dakota.
Nebraska is one of the politically reddest states in the nation; indeed, more than 70 percent of its state representatives are registered members of the Republican Party. Yet, over the past year, different bipartisan coalitions of legislators managed to coalesce around abolishing the death penalty, raising the gas tax and issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants — each with majorities sufficient to override a Republican governor’s veto. Such informal coalitions are not happenstance but the product of design, and a political culture more than 80 years in the making. Nebraska’s innovative model, which finally passed in 1934 after several failed attempts, was spearheaded by Sen. George Norris, a progressive Republican who was convinced that partisan politics were anathema to democracy. “Men in the legislature, elected on a partisan political platform,” as Norris once put it, “are inclined to follow the bidding … of party machines and party bosses.”
Open Primaries is now working with local activists to put initiatives on the ballot in at least two states — Arizona and South Dakota — this year.
Of course, you can’t take the partisan out of politics entirely, but the nonpartisan system remains enduringly popular. Richard Brown, the Nebraska Legislature’s assistant clerk who has worked there since the mid-1970s, says that the only serious effort to reform the system by amendment didn’t even make it out of committee. The main reason for its endurance: It works. Experts say it creates incentives for candidates to reach out to all constituents, understand their concerns and cooperate with colleagues without having to toe the party line or become more moderate. They just find common ground, as with the state’s abolition of the death penalty. “The members of the Nebraska Legislature don’t sound like politicians,” says Jeremy Gruber, senior vice president at Open Primaries, a nonprofit devoted to enacting nonpartisan primaries in all 50 states.
But can Nebraska and other states with open primaries show the way to a less partisan future? Political independents, often treated like second-class citizens in the current party primary system, have been agitating for years for such reforms. Yet only in the past few years has the widespread frustration of American voters approached what may be a tipping point, with even establishment politicians like Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who once opposed open primaries, endorsing them in The New York Times in 2014.
Hoping to capitalize on such disenchantment, Open Primaries is now working with local activists to put initiatives on the ballot in at least two states — Arizona and South Dakota — this year. While advocates are careful to emphasize that an open primary system is not a cure-all, it does in many ways present a more feasible alternative to the daunting task of tackling partisan gerrymandering or big money in politics.
Many are skeptical that Nebraska’s experience, or political culture, can be replicated. After all, with just 49 representatives, its legislature is the smallest in the U.S. And past proposals to emulate its government “rarely even get off the ground,” says Michael McCabe, a director for the Council of State Governments. That’s partly because downsizing to a unicameral legislature, though commonplace in other countries, like Canada, requires legislators to cooperate in making themselves redundant. Then there’s the Democratic and Republican parties, both of which opposed a measure in 2014 in Oregon to introduce a top-two primary initiative that ultimately failed.
Still, open primary advocates like Gruber will continue to work to educate voters and push for ballot initiatives in more states in 2016 and beyond. Because, if the case of Nebraska shows anything, it’s that bold acts of political activism can change a political culture — and for decades at that.