How Nebraska casts its Electoral College votes for president, and how the state should handle students who fail proficiency tests, were subjects of debate in the Capitol Tuesday.
In 48 other states, whichever presidential candidate wins the majority of votes gets all of the state’s electoral college votes. Only in Nebraska and Maine are those votes divided according to who wins individual congressional districts.
Nebraska has had that system since the early 1990s, and in 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won an electoral vote in heavily-Republican Nebraska, by winning the Omaha-dominated 2nd Congressional District. Now, the Legislature is considering a proposal by Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont to return the state to the winner-take-all system.
Janssen, a Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, said it is a matter of maximizing Nebraska’s importance in presidential elections. “What we have done is diminish our clout in a national election by potentially going from the ability to guarantee five electoral votes to a scenario where Nebraska might only offer four or even three electoral votes to the candidate,” he said.
Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue, a registered Democrat, argued exactly the opposite. Crawford referred to the fact that Obama’s 2008 campaign hired staffers and rented offices to pursue the 2nd District vote. She suggested such efforts would not be made if Janssen’s bill, LB382, were passed. “LB382 is a loss in terms of national political relevance. In terms of people talking about the State of Nebraska when they talk about presidential races. And in terms of people visiting and trying to campaign and compete in the State of Nebraska,” Crawford said.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, an independent, promised to filibuster against the bill. He said it would devalue votes cast for candidates of parties other than the Republicans, for whom he used a sarcastic nickname. “If one of the districts voted 99 percent Democrat and 1 percent Repelican, those votes would count for nothing because we know that there are more Repelicans in Nebraska than Democrats. So it would be a hoax to make people think that there is to be fairness in the electoral process,” he said.
Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, a registered Democrat, defended the Legislature’s nonpartisan character, poking fun at Chambers in the process. “I think Sen. Chambers helps with the nonpartisanship a lot, because most of the time we can agree to vote against Sen. Chambers,” he quipped.
If the filibuster threat holds, it could take until Friday to reach a first-round vote on the bill.
Meanwhile, lawmakers did give first-round approval to a bill that would allow those candidates who tie for first in a primary election, but then lose the nomination on a coin toss, to proceed as write-in candidates in the general election.
Tuesday afternoon, the Education Committee heard testimony on a series of sweeping educational reforms proposed by Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh. Among other changes, Lautenbaugh’s bill calls for requiring students to stay in third grade for up to two years if they can’t pass a statewide reading test.
Lautenbaugh acknowledged criticism that could hurt kids self-esteem. “There’s certainly an effect on the psyche from being held back a year. But I feel like, again, we’re picking our poison here. Are we holding the child back and doing that damage, whatever that is, or passing the child along and doing what we’re doing now, all too often, setting that child up to fail?” he asked.
Gina Miller, a parent of two children in Omaha Public Schools, was among those opposing the bill. “I’m asking you as our elected representatives to stop legislating, testing, measuring our children’s education to death,” Miller said. “The over-legislation of our school system is at a fever pitch, I feel, from No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, to current measures such as this.”
Lautenbaugh’s bill, which he said was modeled on changes passed in Florida about 10 years ago, also calls for grading schools on a A-F scale, giving more money to schools that get A’s, allowing alternative methods for teacher certification, and allowing principals to veto the assignment of teachers within districts to their schools.
Opponents included representatives of teachers, school boards and administrators, rural schools, and the state Board of Education. Many of them said the ideas were worthy of discussion, while suggesting more early childhood education was a better solution to the problems Lautenbaugh was trying to address.