o-secretballot

Over my last three years as an opinion writer for the Daily Nebraskan, I have not been without my frustrations regarding the Nebraska Legislature. 

However, I also believe the legislative process in Lincoln is far better than most other states thanks to Nebraska’s nonpartisan, unicameral nature. I am not alone in my belief either, as outlets from the Huffington Post to Boston Public Radio to Independent Voter News have praised Nebraska’s system of government. 

Despite its officially nonpartisan description, it is not hard to tell who the liberals and conservatives are in the legislature. Nonetheless, this does not result in de facto one-party rule when it comes to committee leadership as one might assume in a legislature that has generally been around one-third liberal and two-thirds conservative. 

For example, in the 2022 legislative session, the chair and vice chair of the education committee — Sen. Lynne Walz and Sen. Adam Morfeld, respectively — were both members of the Democratic Party, while the chair and vice chair of the revenue committee — Sen. Lou Ann Linehan and Sen. Brett Lindstrom — were both members of the Republican Party. Several other committees have chairs and vice chairs representing different sides of the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, bipartisan representation in committee leadership may soon be a thing of the past if the members of former Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster’s Nebraska First Political Action Committee get their way. 

While all votes on legislation in the unicameral are done via a public voice vote, members select committee leadership via a secret ballot, where neither the public nor other senators know who voted for whom. This has been the procedure since the first session of the unicameral in 1937, according to the Omaha World-Herald. However, this process has come under attack in recent years, mostly from those on the right side of the aisle, but also from former state Sen. Ernie Chambers, who was best known for his opposition to right-wing politics. 

2022 is not the first time that conservatives have campaigned to get rid of the secret ballot. In 2016, the change was defeated by a 30 to 17 vote, with all 17 votes in favor of the change coming from Republicans. 

However, in 2022, there may be enough votes to overturn the rule, depending on how the November election turns out. Seventeen state senators have already pledged their support to end the secret ballot, and 24 of the 46 legislative candidates running for office this fall have promised their support. If enough of these candidates win, it is likely that the next legislative vote could look very different from the one in 2016.

I understand the desire for transparency, but this request to make the vote for committee chairs public would harm the nonpartisan nature of the legislature and is not in the best interest of Nebraska citizens. Therefore, I am opposed to making the ballot to elect committee members public — not necessarily because of the means, but because of the results it would bring about.

In other state legislatures, such as my home state of Kansas, committee leadership is almost entirely made up of the majority Republicans, but there is a role titled “ranking minority member” to ensure that the minority view has a seat at the table. 

In Nebraska, if Republicans only decided to support other Republicans in the legislature, it is easy to imagine a governing body with only Republican leadership. Committees have the power to determine what legislation is debated on the floor and what is indefinitely postponed. If the leadership of these committees is entirely on the side of the majority, minority senators would have very little ability to stop the majority’s will. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, it should be clear that this is not a healthy way to run a democratic system. 

On the other hand, it could be argued that the elimination of the secret ballot would not change the voting behavior of legislators who already plan on voting the party line. This may be true, but it gives yet another reason to vote against those who have pledged to end the secret ballot if bipartisanship is to be lauded as a virtue, or at the very least, accurate representation of a state where nearly 40% voted for Biden in 2020. 

There will be no lack of messages telling people to vote in the upcoming month, but in a nonpartisan legislative race, it can be difficult for some Nebraskans — especially those in districts with two liberal or conservative candidates — to know who to vote for. Determining whether they support Herbster’s PAC to end the secret ballot is a good way to differentiate candidates. 

Transparency remains an important value of government, but when public votes are only going to be used to shame candidates for their bipartisan support, making committee votes public will only do more harm than good to Nebraska’s democracy.

Brian Beach is a senior journalism major. Reach him at brianbeach@dailynebraskan.com.