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Senate bill aims to open primaries to independent voters

Nebraska News Service

LINCOLN—Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis sent an email late Thursday to members of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee to emphasize why he thinks it is time to change Nebraska’s primary election laws. 

His bill, LB773, which the committee heard on Wednesday, would make it easier for independent voters to participate in primary elections. In executive session Thursday, there was a motion to kill the bill, but that motion failed and the bill will be held in committee indefinitely. 

The bill would allow nonpartisan voters to choose a party’s ballot on election day without officially changing their party affiliation. This would affect elections for president, governor, secretary of state, attorney general, county commissioner, county clerk and county sheriff, among others. Currently, independent voters are only allowed to participate in nonpartisan elections, including those for state legislature, state board of education, mayor and city council.

The bill would turn Nebraska’s primary system from a totally closed system to a hybrid system similar to other states.

In the email Davis sent out Thursday, he explained that Nebraska’s rural counties are a good example of why the system needs to change. 

“Here is how an election might work in rural county,” Davis wrote in the email. “Three people might run for clerk’s office on the Republican ticket. No one runs on the Democratic ticket.  Dems can’t vote, Independents can’t vote, and there is a low turnout. The county is 60% Republican. Candidate C wins the Republican position on the ballot with 40% of the Republican vote. The Republican turnout is only 25% of registered Republican voters. So what has actually happened is that 10% of the Republicans in this county came out to vote for the winner.

“Now bring in the Independents and Dems who didn’t get to vote and assume they make up 40% of the voters in that county and we now see that the 10% has dropped agai n to 6% of the total voters.”

In other words, he said, a county with 1,000 registered voters in that scenario might elect the county clerk with just 60 people voting for the winner.

In the committee hearing, Davis cited the rising number of independent voters as one of the main reasons for the bill’s conception. Independent voter numbers have risen from 5.81 percent of registered voters in 1980 to 19.25 percent (218,804 people) in 2012, voter registration figures show.

It is the only category of voter that has grown significantly since 1980. The Democratic Party has gone from 45.34 percent of voters to 32.4 percent of voters, and the Republican Party has stayed static at about 49 percent.

But despite the rising number of independents, “their voice is not heard at elections,” Davis said at the hearing.

Davis also said there are a variety of reasons why people choose not to align themselves with a party. The simplest reason is that they don’t want to get phone calls or mail. Another reason is that they are becoming frustrated with the parties. If this bill were passed, Davis said people would be more likely to be engaged and thus more likely to choose a party.

One of the main arguments against LB773 is that people not aligned with a party shouldn’t be allowed to vote in that party’s primary.

Former Nebraska State Sen. Sandy Scofield testified in favor of LB773.

“Public perception is ruining parties,” Scofield said. “People are pretty fed up with the process.”

She said that alone is not a good reason to exclude those people from voting. She also said that in rural communities, many business owners choose to be unaffiliated because being affiliated with a political party could hurt their business. But that doesn’t mean those people don’t want to vote.

Scofield, a registered independent, said she changes her party affiliation whenever she wants to vote in a primary, but she said not everyone has the time or energy to do that.

James Jenkins, a Nebraska cattle rancher and registered independent who is running for the U.S. Senate, said in his testimony: “The right and ability to participate in our political system is essential to democracy. I think this is just a matter of fairness.”

Larry Dix testified against the bill on behalf of the Nebraska Association of County Officials. He cited the cost of printing and sending the extra ballots as the main reason for his opposition. He said each ballot costs 25 to 30 cents to send, and in a precinct that does all-mail elections, that cost would be significant.

Chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party J.L. Spray also stood in opposition.

“What are we trying to fix?” he asked.

He also said parties work hard to attract people to them, and allowing people to vote in a party in which they aren’t involved isn’t fair to the parties. People can change their party affiliation if they want to vote.

“The party brand matters,” he said.

Gretna Sen. John Murante, who is on the committee, agreed with Spray.

“The door is wide open,” Murante said in the hearing. “All they have to do is walk through it.”

Davis countered that the parties and counties were being selfish.

“The parties have a vested interest in remaining No. 1 and No. 2,” Davis said.

He also said the extra cost to counties would be relatively low and would be worth it if there was a higher voter turnout.

Despite only two people opposing the bill at the hearing, several letters from counties in opposition were presented at the end of the hearing.

On Thursday, Davis said he was disappointed in the parties and that people not being registered in a party is not an argument to exclude them. He said the bill would be beneficial to both parties because there would be a higher voter turnout.

“Why should you have to be in a party to vote?” he asked.

When asked if this bill was the end of the road or if there would be further reform efforts in the future, Davis said, “Everything is an evolution.”

Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, who is the chairman of the committee, said he supports the bill but that he thought it would die in committee because five of the nine members of the committee in the officially non-partisan Legislature are Republicans and the Republican Party rose in opposition.

Contact Danae Lenz at

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