It’s finally fall in Lincoln, and that means cooler temperatures, Husker football and drama at the state capitol. At least, in fall 2021, that is.
While the Nebraska Legislature typically holds alternating 60 and 90 day sessions beginning each January, every ten years all 49 senators come together for a two week special session.
The task at hand? Drawing maps. That’s it.
No debates on abortion, nothing about critical race theory and no time spent on marijuana legalization. Just drawing new districts.
It may not seem like a particularly challenging process — at least not one that merits the attention of the entire legislature for an additional two weeks — and at face value, it really isn’t that difficult. There are plenty of algorithms already available that can divide the state into equal population districts to reflect the state’s changing demographics without the need for politicians to waste their time.
However, drawing maps that make sense along existing city and county boundaries, keep incumbents in their districts, remain similar to previous maps and — this is key —serve political interests cannot be done with a simple algorithm.
Throughout the last two weeks, lawmakers have proposed new maps for state legislative districts, State Board of Education districts and state Supreme Court judicial districts among other state agencies, and the creation of these maps haven’t been without their controversies.
These maps will have profound impacts on who makes up these bodies, and therefore which policies are set as priorities, but one map in particular has attracted the interest of Nebraskans and political pundits from across the nation: the one dividing Nebraska into its three Congressional districts.
Not only do these districts determine who Nebraska sends to Congress, which has the potential to shift the balance of power in the House of Representatives, but thanks to Nebraska’s electoral vote allocation system, they may even have an impact on future presidential elections. It would seem as though fairly-drawn districts that best reflect the will of Nebraskans is in the best interest of the state’s residents, but that’s not how politics work.
In 2020, Joe Biden ended up receiving an electoral vote from Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, though Republican Don Bacon won the Congressional seat, resulting in candidates from both parties picking up wins. Currently, the 2nd District has a Cook Partisan Voter index of R+1, making it among the most evenly split districts in the country.
The next iteration of Nebraska’s second district map could determine whether Nebraska’s “blue dot” becomes bluer or reverts to red, and a shift of a few neighborhoods could make the difference in a presidential electoral vote.
Three primary Congressional district proposals have been brought forward for debate, but thanks to filibusters, none seem primed to become the next district map of Nebraska.
The Republican map, proposed by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, the Republican chair of the redistricting committee, would split Omaha into two districts, with sections of northwest Omaha becoming part of the 1st Congressional District, which contains Lincoln. The 2nd District would contain the rest of Omaha, all of suburban Sarpy County, which gave Trump an 11% margin of victory, and all of rural Saunders County, where Trump received a 45% margin of victory.
Sarpy County, and especially Saunders County, are much smaller than Douglas County, though the counties certainly skew the district in the Republicans’ favor.
The GOP proposal follows the Nebraska Constitution requirements for districts to be contiguous and cover a proportional population, but practically speaking, the map makes no sense outside of a political lens.
The map also fails to abide by LR102, 2011 Nebraska legislation that is supposed to prevent partisan redistricting. It requires Congressional districts to be compact and contiguous while preserving political subdivisions and cores of prior districts. Additionally, it is prohibited for districts to protect an incumbent or use partisan data, though notably, intentionally favoring a party is only prohibited in the creation of legislative districts.
Geographically, the Republicans’ new 2nd District is not as compact as the current district, which is strange, given that the Omaha metro area has grown proportionally to the state. It also fails to preserve the political subdivisions and cores of prior districts, since it gives part of Omaha away to the 1st District while taking over parts of Sarpy County and all of Saunders County.
Perhaps no partisan data was explicitly used to create the new district map, but practically speaking, the inclusion of Saunders County in what was previously an exclusive Omaha metro area map makes little sense.
Residents of Valparaiso, Morse Bluff and Wahoo have much less in common with downtown Omaha than residents that live in north central Omaha, but under the proposal, folks at 104th and Maple in Omaha would be swept away to the district dominated by Lincoln while Saunders County could become part of Nebraska’s “blue dot,” or perhaps more accurately, “purple dot.”
Although the unicameral is officially nonpartisan, registered Republicans account for 32 of its members, while Democrats make up the remaining 17. This means that Republicans would fall just one vote short of being able to override the filibuster if they voted together, which requires a two-thirds majority vote.
The map promoted by Democrats, spearheaded by Sen. Justin Wayne, creates a much more compact 2nd District map, which includes all of Douglas County and a small portion of north central Sarpy County.
It retains more similar territory to the current map than the GOP proposal, but incumbent Don Bacon’s residence is not included.
The U.S. Constitution requires members of the House of Representatives to live in the state that they represent, but not necessarily their congressional district. However, the political challenge of living outside of a district one is running to represent could cause trouble for Bacon.
Sen. John McCollister, a Republican who has often been at odds with his own party, also proposed a map which would incorporate Douglas, Dodge, Washington and Colfax Counties into one district, while Sarpy County would become part of the 1st District. This proposal would keep the districts along county lines, though Colfax County towns like Clarkson and Leigh have little in common with the rest of Douglas County.
According to analysis done by the Omaha World-Herald, Biden would have won all three of the newly proposed 2nd Districts, but Biden’s margins would have been tightest in the Republican map. In a closer presidential race, these differences of five percentage points could swing an election.
But as it stands, none of these proposed maps have a clear path forward. Speaker Mike Hilgers said Tuesday that if legislators cannot come up with a solution by Saturday, the special session will end without achieving its goal, which could delay the primary elections scheduled for May 2022.
There has to be a better way. And though it’s not perfect, seven other states already seem to have found one.
Instead of relying on legislators to draw their own maps, perhaps an independent commission, not made up of politicians, would be a better path forward.
I am not the first to suggest such an idea. In 2016, the Nebraska legislature passed LB580, which would have created an independent commission to draw maps in 2021. The bill passed by a 29-15 vote, but fell just one vote short of overriding Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto.
In 2020, Nebraskans for Independent Redistricting created a petition in an attempt to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would create an independent commission. However, the petition drive, which began March 5, 2020, quickly stalled out due to COVID-19 concerns.
It is too late to change the process by which new districts are drawn in 2021, but while the issue has the attention of so many Nebraskans, now is a great time to advocate for reform so that in 2031, fair maps have a better chance.
It may be impossible to fully rid the redistricting process of any political fervor, in much the same way that the technically nonpartisan unicameral isn’t free of partisan influence.
However, getting such a contentious task out of the hands of politicians and into the hands of an independent commission is the best way for Nebraskans to ensure that voters have the right to pick their elected officials and not the other way around.
Brian Beach is a junior journalism major. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.