By: Eleyse D’Andrea
Debate over partisanship has been a major point of contention throughout American history. Nonpartisanship in the early twentieth century focused on removing party politics from election processes to lessen the power and influence of political machines on citizens’ voting decisions. At the other end of the spectrum, proponents of partisan structure supported the positive role of political parties as a means of mobilizing citizens to participate in the political process, and furthermore lauded party identification on ballots as central to informed voting. In today’s America, partisanship is common and party ballot identification is a central element of many voting models. Nebraska, however, stands alone as the only state to remove party labels from state legislature ballots
Nebraska shifted from a partisan to nonpartisan legislature (known as the Unicam) in 1937. Voters pushed for nonpartisan election procedures due to dissatisfaction with the existing bicameral, partisan legislature. Initial majority support of over 90% of the state’s counties and precincts in combination with the use of direct democracy – which prevented legislators from reinstituting the partisan system without voter approval – effectively snuffed out legislative partisanship. In stark contrast to the experiences of other states attempting nonpartisanship, party alignment failed to resurface in Nebraska for decades and continued to have minimal impact on legislator voting behavior.
However, recent trends show Nebraska becoming increasingly polarized as political actors have adapted to overcome influence elections in spite of the longstanding institution of legislative nonpartisanship. Beginning in 2006, a voter initiative effecting term limits on state legislators began removing incumbents from office, providing opportunities for political parties to organize politics and influence elections for the first time in decades. Legislators are now limited to two consecutive four-year terms, increasing turnover rates and allowing partisan actors to recruit new candidates and influence their decisions while in office. This study of campaign donation trends found that elite donors who formerly contributed equally to candidates of across party lines are now more likely to donate to those of a particular political affiliation in a distinctly partisan manner.
Historically, proponents of nonpartisanship believed that a good citizen was involved and informed, and along with other good citizens, would select leaders to further the common societal good. This citizen saw party labels as a form of self-interest and divisiveness – hallmarks of partisanship with an overwhelmingly negative influence on the electoral process. This line of thought translates to the modern concept that removing party labels from ballots requires citizens to educate themselves on current politics in order to make rational, informed voting decisions. On the other hand, supporters of partisanship saw political parties as both a positive influence on the electoral process and a crucial aspect of a strong democracy. This school of thought accepts that the average citizen is, at best, moderately interested and often poorly informed about politics. From this point of view, party labels serve an important role as voting cues to help citizens make reasonably informed voting decisions. Following this line of thought, removing party labels from ballots could make voting more difficult and ultimately undermine the electoral process as a whole.
So the question facing Nebraska is whether the nonpartisan system has been successful. Through a historical lens, we ask whether removing party labels from ballots has achieved the goal of quashing corrupt influence of political parties and creating informed voters. Without question, removing party labels from state senate election ballots has notably lessened the impact of partisanship on voter decisions. State legislators support and believe in the nonpartisan system, and report successful formation of nonpartisan coalitions around given issues rather than along party lines. But are voters really taking the initiative to inform themselves, or are they relying on less reliable cues and making less informed voting decisions? While it is of course possible that a Nebraskan citizen will go to the trouble to research candidates, (as early nonpartisan proponents once hoped) it is more likely that the majority of voters are uninformed of the party affiliation of a name on a ballot. Research suggests that without party labels, voters are wont to turn to the next most obvious cue – incumbency. Voters without external background knowledge of a candidate listed on a ballot are likely to vote for an incumbent based on name recognition. Critics of the nonpartisan ballot argue that this advantage to incumbents is as detrimental to voters’ ability to elect candidates to represent their interests. On the other hand, re-election of incumbents means that voters are evaluating candidates’ performances, and in that regard, are choosing leaders to further public interests.
Evaluations aside, Nebraska is a unique case study in that its unicameral legislature existed and functioned successfully for decades before partisan influences began to infiltrate and take effect – something no other state has achieved. Nebraska has undeniably been a testament to the power of citizens to effect change in true American form; the state’s citizens removed party labels from the state legislature election ballots through a voter initiative in 1937, and now the voter initiative that instituted term limits may be the driving force behind the increasing partisanship of Nebraska state legislature politics. Whether support for the existing nonpartisan system will be enough to sustain the unicameral state legislature in the face of increasing influence of partisan actors remains to be seen, and regardless of the outcome, will be a notable data point in the ongoing debate over American partisanship.