Nebraska lawmaker proposes nonpartisan elections for statewide candidates

By: - March 8, 2023 6:47 pm
John Cavanaugh presents a bill for more nonpartisan elections

State Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha proposes changing all statewide executive officers such as the governor to be chosen in nonpartisan elections. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Nebraskans could decide in 2024 whether the state’s constitutional officers, such as the governor or secretary of state, should be elected on a nonpartisan basis.

Legislative Resolution 3CA, proposed by State Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha, would provide that the top two vote-getters for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor of public accounts and state treasurer advance to the general election, regardless of party.

If the Legislature approves LR 3CA, voters would have the final say in 2024.

“It has worked well for the Nebraska Legislature for nearly 90 years,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s time that we gave our voters the choice to make our statewide elections nonpartisan as well.”

For the Legislature, Republicans, Democrats and third parties often recruit and support candidates, though their party registration does not appear on the ballot. The top two candidates in the open primary advance to the November general election.

Elected state senators also do not officially organize around their party affiliation, though they may vote together on some issues.

Opening primaries

Cavanaugh, a Democrat, said that some may think his proposal would get more Democrats elected to statewide office, but he noted that two Republicans would have advanced in 2022 for four of the five constitutional offices.

The only election where that would not have been the case was for governor, which was also the only race among the statewide offices where a Democrat ran.

In that race, Gov. Jim Pillen still would have faced State Sen. Carol Blood in November, since she got about 8,000 more votes in the primary than Charles Herbster, the Republican runner-up.

Cindy Maxwell-Ostdiek, who ran for the Legislature in 2022, said registered nonpartisans such as herself do not get to fully participate in the state’s primary elections, which often require voters to be a member of a political party, and the party decides who its nominee is.

Cavanaugh’s proposal would change that.

Lessons of political factions

Larry Storer testifies before a legislative committee
Larry Storer testifies before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Larry Storer of Omaha said he supported Republican Robert Borer for Nebraska secretary of state in 2022, the runner-up to Republican Bob Evnen, who was the incumbent.

However, because of Nebraska’s election system, Evnen advanced alongside Libertarian Katrina Tomsen — the Libertarian and Legal Marijuana NOW parties each can nominate a candidate, in addition to the Republican and Democratic Parties.

Unless someone is a Republican or Democrat, Storer said, they have little power. He added that George Washington and James Madison warned against political factions

“Unfortunately, we didn’t learn our lessons,” Storer said.

Cavanaugh said some Democrats have criticized the proposal, as well, saying it would bar some Democrats from advancing past the primary.

However, Cavanaugh said, he did not introduce the proposal for political expediency or to get more people who agree with him elected.

‘Easily observable description’

Steve Davies testified against the bill. He said it would remove the single “easily observable description” of a candidate’s philosophy and policies. Davies said he worried the proposal would further limit whether voters are informed.

“If this proposal succeeds, the parties may wither away, taking away the structure and benefits,” Davies said. “This is one of a number of proposals that purport to bring a more enlightened, responsive and civil government but in reality deliver much less.”

Cavanaugh said voters often know candidates’ parties anyway. He also said he is not interested in taking candidates’ party affiliation off the ballot, though he said political parties should not be “institutionalized.”

State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, chair of the committee, said the committee received 60 letters in opposition to the bill and five in support.

The committee took no action on the bill at the end of the hearing.

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling recently graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a double major in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. He reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan before joining the Nebraska Examiner staff as an intern.