Take a look at the history of Nebraska's license plates from 1990 to present.
OMAHA — A popular automobile industry blog recently ranked Nebraska’s license plate 45th out of the 50 states, faulting it for the obscure image of “The Sower” and a perceived lack of effort.
“Is that an 18th-century dandy with a purse standing on a Reese's peanut butter cup?” the writer from Autoblog said of the vague Sower image. “Really, though, that's the most indicative thing you can depict from your state?”
Nebraska's license plate from 1903-1914.
That blogger has hardly been the only critic of Nebraska's plates over the years.
License plates serve a simple purpose, helping identify cars and offering proof that they have been properly approved for the road.
But over the past half-century, plates have generated a carload of controversy in Nebraska.
Who can forget “Plategate,” when the state’s online plate vote got hijacked?
Or the U.S. bicentennial plates that seemed they might still be around for the nation’s 250th birthday?
Or the current plate that originally used the wrong Sower image?
While these misfires might not rank among the great government scandals of our time, the resulting controversies have proven time and time again that people really do care about license plates.
When done right, a license plate can add a little bit of class to even a clunker of a car.
They’ve also come to serve as little chamber of commerce billboards we bolt to our bumpers, projecting an image of the state to the wider world.
Nebraska’s current plate, introduced in 2017, doesn’t seem to score well on that front.
And when you look over other states’ plates, you can see
why some would in comparison rate Nebraska’s plate so poorly. It could be worse, though. Autoblog rated Michigan — arguably the auto capital of the world — as having the worst plate.
In all fairness, in trying to come up up with a plate most Nebraskans can be happy with, the state does face some challenges.
Nebraska's 1940 license plate.
Nebraska doesn’t have any particularly well-known landmarks or geography. Think of all the license plate mileage South Dakota and Colorado have gotten out of Mount Rushmore and the Rockies.
And while Nebraska has a rich agricultural heritage, and the vast majority of the state’s land is still devoted to farms, more than 60% of the state’s population lives in two metropolitan cities.
As we will see, that has often made it hard to find a plate design or slogan that a sizable number of urban Nebraskans won’t consider too corny or country bumpkinish. If you are trying to project your state as an exciting place to live, covered wagons don’t really sell.
Nebraska's 1960 license plate.
Fortunately, there are now a number of
attractive specialty plate choices Nebraskans can slap on their cars if they pay extra.
And if you don’t like the current plate, the Sower's days are numbered. The Ricketts administration in the months ahead is expected to introduce a new design that will go on cars beginning in 2023.
Going back nearly a half-century, here’s a look at the state’s plate debates — and even a few plates that we actually liked.
Nebraska's license plates through the years
The celebration that never ended (1976-1983)
Issued to mark the nation’s 200th birthday in 1976, these red, white and blue plates were notable for a couple reasons. Due to technology changes, it was the first time plates could feature graphic images and more than just two colors. But novel as they were, Nebraskans would grow sick of them. The Legislature at least twice delayed issuing new plates due to budget constraints, keeping the frayed, faded, battered plates on cars for eight years. Consider that no previous plate lasted more than four, or that the bicentennial was by the end a distant memory. But state lawmakers soon ran into more plate problems...
Plain label (1984-86)
It started when a senator from Lincoln had the audacity to suggest it was time for old plate slogans like “The Beef State” and “The Cornhusker State” to go. The Legislature haggled for hours over possible replacements, among them the “Tree Planter State” and “Prairie State.” A last-ditch pitch for “The Good Life” fell just one vote short. That led to production of these plain plates. “Plain-label” foods, in generic black and white packaging, were strangely popular at the time. So in a way, it became kind of a parody plate. Most people didn’t see the humor though.
And we finally have a winner (1987-1989)
Due to the previous plate debacle, state lawmakers going forward took plate designs out of their own hands and left the job to the state’s governor. Most thought the administration of Gov. Bob Kerrey came through with flying colors in creating this plate with “Nebraska” in a stylized script and a bright, artistic rendering of a sunset on a braided Platte River. A plate collectors’ group at the time named it one of the nation's best. It’s arguably still the best Nebraska ever produced.
But it's not a Dempster... (1990-1992)
The administration of Gov. Kay Orr kept the river motif of the previous plate but replaced the sun with a windmill. Some big-city residents thought the windmill hickish. And even some rural folks who liked the windmill were critical that it didn’t feature the distinctive vane of a Dempster, a windmill variety manufactured in Nebraska.
Something for both city and rural folk (1993-95)
This plate produced by the administration of Gov. Ben Nelson certainly threaded the needle on the state’s urban/rural divide. It had appeal from Omaha to the Panhandle, mainly because it featured silhouette images of the Omaha skyline and State Capitol on the right side and western Nebraska’s Chimney Rock on the left — with even a river and windmill thrown in to boot. The plate was certainly popular with Nelson, as we will see...
If it was good enough the first time... (1996-1998)
Ummm, haven’t we seen this one before? Well, yes, you have. And there’s a story behind that. State DMV officials developed a new plate design. But just to help Nelson feel he was getting a say, the DMV director brought along a rejected version of the previous plate, featuring a slightly different color scheme, when she went to unveil the new plate to her boss. To her surprise, you can guess which one Nelson chose.
Go Big Red! (1997-99)
With three national championships in four years, 1990s football fervor led to the introduction of the first in an ongoing series of Husker Spirit plates. The plate would also be the vanguard of a wide variety of specialty plates drivers could pay extra for. There are now some three dozen such choices. As perhaps a sign of recent football woes, a plate featuring a mountain lion — first introduced by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers — in recent years has surpassed Husker Spirit as the top-selling specialty.
Just make them bigger this time (1999-2001)
Yep, Ben Nelson sure loved him some images of buildings and Chimney Rock. The third and final plate created during his eight-year tenure featured some very familiar images, but on steroids. Perhaps it was time for some new thinking?
Contest produces a winner (2002-2004)
Given what a political football it can be to pick a plate, Gov. Mike Johanns wisely punted. He held a state contest to allow Nebraskans to submit their own designs and then let the public vote among several finalists. The process produced this winner of a plate, featuring flying sandhill cranes silhouetted against a colorful Nebraska sunset. But the voting idea wouldn’t always work so smoothly.
Yes, we still travel by wagon out here (2005-2010)
A covered wagon heading into a Nebraska sunset won out in a close, very divided vote, with three finalists each getting more than one-fourth support. Many city residents thought the winner was the worst of the three, a backwards rube of a plate that snuck through when the urban vote split on the other designs. How does a covered wagon promote the state? And didn’t most of those pioneers just pass through anyway? Detractors soon had more to gripe about: Gov. Dave Heineman then chose a design for the new state quarter that also featured a covered wagon.
Plategate: The vote gets pranked (2009)
For a few days, this divisive gray plate featuring the state's web site was set to adorn state vehicles after Heineman declared it the winner of an online vote. But a website called
CollegeHumor.com had hijacked the poll, encouraging its audience to vote for the plate to assure Nebraska got stuck with a boring one. Heineman’s administration claimed the vote had not been compromised. But probing by The World-Herald uncovered “Plategate,” as officials finally acknowledged that votes originating from the humor site had indeed swayed the result. With those votes tossed, the winner became...
Better late than never (2011-2016)
The voting debacle aside, there was a feel-good story behind the ultimate winning design. The plate featuring the western meadowlark (state bird) and goldenrod (state flower) had actually been submitted for the contest six years earlier. It was resurrected by DMV officials and placed back on the ballot. By then, designer Ginny Ruark had left the state. She had no idea until informed by a reporter that her handiwork would grace state bumpers. One blogger ranked it the
22nd best in the country.
You reap what you sow (2015)
No more design contests. Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration chose its own. But as the governor released this plate said to feature the Sower statue from atop the State Capitol, it faced criticism as obscure (who outside Nebraska understands this?), even a little erotic (just what is that guy reaching for anyway?), or perhaps a conspiracy to sell more specialty plates. And after more hard-hitting investigative reporting by this newspaper, it was revealed the plate featured the wrong Sower — from a relief sculpture at Michigan State University. The artist who created the design admitted the mistake.
OK, the right Sower, but... (2017-2022)
The state quickly reversed course and changed to the correct Sower. But in the end, did it really matter? Once printed on plates, the Sower image appeared almost ghostlike, a faint gray muddle of squiggly lines lurking behind numbers and letters. And as Autoblog pointed out, the Sower is indeed obscure. Take away the Sower theme, and you are pretty much left with a plain, boring plate.
CollegeHumor.com would surely have approved. Specialty plate anyone?