Divisive Politics Sparks Hunger for Better Way

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‘      (CN) — The discord and unseemliness of this year”s presidential campaigns has renewed interest in decentralizing the power of political parties in government.
     Already this year, a member of Congress has renewed his call for nonpartisan primaries for all congressional races.
     There is also a proposal in Michigan to move to nonpartisan elections and a unicameral legislature, and a proposed ballot initiative in South Dakota that will ask voters in November to approve a constitutional amendment that would transform its state legislature into a nonpartisan body.
     Meanwhile in Nebraska, where the state has featured a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature since 1937, a group of 13 state senators publicized a letter they authored that chastised Gov. Pete Ricketts for comments he made about “platform Republicans” at the state party convention that they believe were meant to intimidate G.O.P. members who don”t toe the party line.
     In a political era known for dysfunction and polarization, it should come as no surprise that numerous groups are looking for ways to move beyond the partisan disputes that have confounded legislators from Washington D.C. to state houses around the country.
     In an election-year editorial published in September 2014, Rep. John Delaney, a Democrat from Maryland, explained why he had introduced the Open Our Democracy Act earlier that summer.
     “We can”t let 535 people continue to limit the progress of a nation of more than 300 million people,” Delaney wrote in the Washington Post, referring to his colleagues in the Capitol. “Congressional dysfunction is the logical result of closed primaries, too many gerrymandered one-party seats and low-turnout elections. […] We select candidates using a partisan primary filter, then act surprised when the huge portion of the electorate that isn”t ideological is unhappy with its general-election options.”
     Reforms suggested by Delaney include mandating open primaries for House elections, making Election Day a federal holiday, and initiating redistricting reform, all of which would give independent and moderate voters a greater voice in picking representatives and send so-called “bridge-builders” to serve in Washington.
     This approach is shared by groups like Open Primaries Inc., a New York non-profit working to enact open and nonpartisan primary systems.
     “More Americans now identify as independent than with either of the two major political parties. Yet most states prohibit independents from voting in primaries. They also disallow major party voters who live in gerrymandered districts controlled by the other party without a meaningful vote. As a result, less than 5% of voters today are deciding who represents 100% of their district or state — leaving only the most hardened partisans in control of much of the makeup of our legislative bodies,” Jeremy Gruber, Senior Vice President of Open Primaries told Courthouse News.
     While the Open Our Democracy Act remains in committee limbo, on the state level there has been more movement.
     In South Dakota the proposed constitutional amendment would adopt a nonpartisan legislative system in the state. Open Primaries and former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland have led the effort to get the amendment on the ballot.
     As that effort becomes closer to reality, lawmakers there have looked across their southern border to Nebraska for a model of how a nonpartisan government can work. Nebraska has operated with such a system for nearly 80 years.
     Depression economics and Dust Bowl populism led to Nebraska taking up the idea of switching to a one-house legislative body as a cost-cutting measure.
     The effort was led by George Norris, a self-proclaimed “New Deal Republican” and five-term U.S. senator, who settled in McCook, Nebraska.
     As a Progressive contemporary of Theodore Roosevelt and Wisconsin”s “Fighting” Bob LaFollete, Norris had previously been a strong advocate of the direct popular election of senators, ratified to the Constitution in 1913, and, as an avowed isolationist, was one of only six senators to reject Woodrow Wilson”s war declaration against Germany in 1917.
     Norris” greatest legacy in Nebraska, however, is the state”s Unicameral legislature. Nebraska remains the only state to have a one-house legislative body and a nonpartisan system of government. In fact, it”s the only state to have either.
     Norris saw many drawbacks with the typical two-house system, and noted that the bicameral system was modeled after the British Parliament with its House of Commons and House of Lords, according to this history of the unicameral on the Nebraska Legislature”s home page.
     “The constitutions of our various states are built upon the idea that there is but one class,” Norris said while pitching the idea of a unicameral. “If this be true, there is no sense or reason in having the same thing done twice, especially if it is to be done by two bodies of men elected in the same way and having the same jurisdiction.”
     Nonpartisanship was a central precept of Norris” view of efficient state government. By avoiding the influence of national parties, state senators should be free to concentrate on local interests, he believed.
     In addition to having open, nonpartisan primary elections for state senators, the leadership positions in Nebraska”s legislature are not based on party affiliation, but are voted on by secret ballot among the senators each session. As such, there is no majority or minority leader, and no majority whip to keep members of the body in line.
     Charlyne Berens, associate dean and professor at the University of Nebraska”s College of Journalism and Mass Communications, sees this lack of formalized party leadership within the body as a central feature of a successful one-house system. She has written two books about the history and role of the Nebraska Unicameral, “Power to the People” and “One House.”
     Berens told Courthouse News in a telephone interview that the Unicameral functions well precisely because the body isn”t organized along party lines.
     “All the leadership positions are elected by written, secret ballot. Even though the majority of members may be Republican, that is not the influence that decides who the leaders are. You get people coalescing around their principles and interests on any given issue as opposed to the party line,” Berens explained.
     This very notion has been on display in Nebraska during the initial two years of Gov. Ricketts” rocky first term in public office.
     Ricketts has seen several of his vetoes overridden by the Unicameral, including a historic vote to end the death penalty and one that will allow some illegal immigrants to obtain professional licenses in the state, despite the fact that a strong majority of the body are the governor”s fellow Republicans.
     The latest rebuke to Ricketts came last week when 13 state senators co-authored a letter that chastised him for putting party unity above the best interests of the citizens of Nebraska. Weeks before, Ricketts called out individual senators at the Nebraska State Republican Convention for their failure to vote as the party commands and urged his party-mates to elect what he called “platform Republicans.”
     Ricketts and his family are known to be big donors to political causes, using the weight of their TD Ameritrade fortune to influence many races and conservative causes. In fact, after his veto of the death penalty bill was overridden, Ricketts was the main financier of a petition drive to preserve capital punishment in Nebraska, putting up over $200,000 of his own money to fuel the effort.
     The letter critical of Ricketts” style, signed by both Republican and Democratic senators, includes a history lesson on the importance of checks and balances of power and the constitutional responsibilities of the legislative branch, along with an invocation of George Norris and his belief that “qualifications, not politics should be the criterion for public service.”
     “Governor Ricketts believes political party trumps principle,” the letter states. “Our nonpartisan, unicameral legislature has lasted for eighty years, and, barring the will of the people for a new legislative experiment, we will not surrender our nonpartisan and constitutional duties.”
     According to Berens, the father of Nebraska”s one-house legislature would approve of this balance of power between like-party politicians.
     “[Norris] would consider this vindication for what he hoped would be the outcome of nonpartisan government,” Berens told Courthouse News. “Whether he would have foreseen a world with partisanship being so important, I don”t know.”
     One of the authors of the letter, Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, has been so frustrated by pressure put on her by fellow Republicans that she switched party affiliation and now identifies as a Libertarian. Ebke, a life-long conservative (family lore states that her first word as a child was “Goldwater”) became disillusioned with the “lazy policymaking” that results from too much influence from party leaders.
     “As a Republican, the pressure to vote with the Republican governor is significant,” Ebke wrote in a statement on her Facebook page. “The notion that the Governor should be able to tell legislators how to vote because they are registered in the same party — or that ”good Republicans” would work to keep something ”off of the Governor”s desk” — does a disservice to the role of the legislature and to the intention of the founders when they created a republican form of government with separate branches.”
     In her statement Ebke acknowledged that the GOP might “take me out” when she”s up for re-election in 2018, but she felt it is her duty as a movement conservative to take the road less traveled.
     Noting that Tuesday”s primary marked the end of a “deeply flawed” and controversial presidential primary season (although there is one last Democratic contest, in the District of Columbia, June 14), Jeremy Gruber of Open Primaries sees hope that election reform could be the solution people are looking for.
     “More and more Americans support open primaries because they empower independent voters, provide more freedom to Democratic and Republican voters, create more competitive elections and produce functional legislatures that work for the people, not the parties,” Gruber told Courthouse News.
     While the current election system in many states often creates more frustration than solutions, it could be that help is on the way.’