A Nebraska law approved last year with no debate has set the nation's highest bar for independent candidates to qualify for statewide races such as governor and U.S. Senate, contradicting the state's history of downplaying partisan politics.
Critics said the measure was quietly inserted into an omnibus elections law to maintain the Republican party stranglehold on every statewide office.
The measure gained attention because former Republican Sen. Bob Krist this month quit the party to launch an independent run against incumbent Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts in 2018. A lesser-known independent, Doug Whitmore, hopes to run against Republican U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer.
"This is a scare tactic that the parties use to keep people like me from running," Whitmore said.
The law requires nonpartisan candidates in partisan statewide elections to collect signatures from at least 10 percent of the state's registered voters — roughly 119,000 people as of August. That's a tall order in the mostly rural state with only two major cities. Previously, candidates in Nebraska needed just 4,000 signatures.
By comparison, 37 other states require 10,000 signatures or fewer to place independent candidates on the ballot, according to an analysis by a national ballot-access activist. No other state has a signature threshold as high as Nebraska's, based on recent voter registrations.
Nebraska prides itself on a system of local elections that do not mention party affiliation on the ballot, but statewide office holders run in partisan elections. Nebraska also has the only unicameral Legislature in the nation and there are no party caucuses, although affiliations are known. The state elected an independent as U.S. Senator in 1936, George Norris.
In modern elections, it is especially hard for a candidate to be elected as a governor or U.S. senator without the backing of the Republican or Democratic party. The best-known independent is Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who ran for president against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. The only other Senate independent is Angus King of Maine. The only independent governor is Bill Walker of Alaska.
The new Nebraska requirement, introduced by a Republican, Sen. John Murante, was added to an omnibus elections proposal after a hearing in which no one but the measure's sponsor testified. Senators approved the package 45-0, just days before the session was scheduled to end — a time when many lawmakers are tired and scrambling to pass last-minute bills.
Some senators said they were surprised to learn the law had been slipped into the larger package.
"I hate to say it, but I think most of us didn't fully appreciate that that was in there," said Sen. Laura Ebke, a Libertarian who has worked to increase ballot access for third parties.
A spokeswoman for Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale, a Republican, said his office took no position on the law. Nebraska Republican Party Executive Director Kenny Zoeller said the party didn't lobby for it.
Krist said he believes the law was "rammed through" the Legislature to help the GOP. To get around the requirement, Krist said he probably will create his own party, rather than run for governor unaffiliated. Parties only need about 5,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.
"Any time a major party wants to secure its hold on a political base, the last thing it wants is for another party to move in," Krist said.
Murante, who is running for state treasurer, said he didn't introduce the measure to get at any one candidate or party.
He said Nebraska's previous policy made it too easy for independent candidates, who don't face the same rigorous primaries as party hopefuls. Winning a party's nomination sometimes requires candidates to secure more than 100,000 votes, he said.
"Candidates trying to get on the ballot should be held to roughly comparable standards," Murante said.
Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb said she was unaware of the change but voiced concern.
"It's typical when you have one-party dominance in a state, that the Republican Party feels it can do whatever it wants," she said.
Nebraska's law is "plainly unconstitutional" based on federal court cases in Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio and other states with similar or less stringent requirements, said Richard Winger, a nationally-recognized ballot-access activist.
Winger, who publishes Ballot Access News, said the only legitimate reason for signature thresholds is to keep ballots from getting too crowded. One possible example was California, where a 2003 ballot to recall then-Gov. Gray Davis included 135 candidates.
If the threshold was too low in Nebraska the state would have a bunch of independent candidates, which has not happened, Winger said.
"It's ironic that one of the few states to elect an independent would do this," Winger said.