In the end, Nebraska’s redistricting method largely worked in 2021, with compromise maps making few people, if any, giddy, while most accepted the outcome as tolerable.
But the special session we just witnessed – which Speaker Mike Hilgers threatened to end without a solution after partisan squabbling nearly derailed the entire process – demonstrated why Nebraska needs to take the drawing of maps out of the hands of elected officials dependent on the outcome.
The Nebraska Legislature has proved in recent years that it has no interest in reforming a system that helps determine who stays in office, so the people – Nebraska’s second house – must craft a petition that will end this partisan gamesmanship in the officially nonpartisan Legislature.
As last month proved, when politics enter the equation, you have travesties like some that Nebraska will have to deal with for the next decade.
A more densely populated area of central Nebraska gave up a seat to a rural area, one that’s hemorrhaged population, to end a standoff. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s growth didn’t result in a new seat; rather, the city was carved up and given to rural Republicans to appease a renegade group of rural senators who believed their constituencies are more important than others.
The 1.6 seats expected to be added to urban areas based on population growth was instead rounded down to one, instead of up, in defiance of mathematical rules. And while arguments between Republicans and Democrats flared, the 22% of Nebraska voters who belong to no party were ignored.
All this in the name of power and politics. Which is precisely why voters must use their power to remove the politics from the equation.
As we’ve argued before, the dream scenario would be to follow Iowa’s apolitical redistricting system, which is the envy of the nation. Boundaries are drawn outside its Legislature by a nonpartisan state agency, without access to voter data or elected officials’ incumbency, to be approved on a simple up-or-down vote by lawmakers.
Even if a redistricting body didn’t go that far and followed the lead of, say, Colorado's new commission, it would represent marked improvements over the status quo.
Gov. Pete Ricketts cited constitutional concerns in vetoing a 2016 compromise that created an independent commission. However, requiring the Legislature and governor to sign off on any maps before enactment would still satisfy the state constitution’s mandate that “The Legislature … shall divide the state into legislative districts.”
And Nebraskans have seen how the Legislature handled that duty this time around, with attempts to surgically slice Omaha street by street over two congressional districts, remove the growing district in Seward and York counties that produces moderate Republicans and treat certain rural populations as sacrosanct at the expense of those who live in the most populous areas.