Thanks to a late addition to a far-reaching elections bill, nonpartisan candidates seeking election to statewide offices in Nebraska now face the hardest road in the country to appear on the ballot.
Hopefuls must now obtain signatures from 10 percent of the state’s registered voters — roughly 119,000 people — to appear on the ballot as an independent candidate, up from 4,000. Six percent of all Nebraskans must sign off on any potential independent candidacy for statewide offices such as governor and United States senator.
This change is simply bad business for Nebraska elections — and the idea of a government of the people, by the people, for the people. The last thing democracy needs is a chilling effect on the ultimate form of political participation: running for office.
For one, it makes the possible candidacies from large swaths of Nebraska far more challenging. Only two counties — Douglas and Lancaster — have more than 119,000 registered voters, and just 16 of Nebraska’s other 91 counties contain at least 10,000. Nearly all are found along the Interstate 80 corridor.
Furthermore, the timing could hardly be less convenient: Nebraskans will elect both a governor and a U.S. senator in 2018.
Those seeking to mount nonpartisan challenges to Gov. Pete Ricketts and Sen. Deb Fischer will have mountains to climb as independents. State Sen. Bob Krist decided it’d be easier to run a separate gubernatorial campaign by creating his own party, which requires a far less onerous 5,000 signatures.
Sen. John Murante, who introduced the measure, told the Associated Press that under the previous policy independents had too low a bar to clear to get onto the ballot. He noted that those who win competitive statewide primaries could need up to 100,000 votes to clinch the nomination.
These facts are accurate. But the view is far too narrow.
It conveniently excludes the fact that those who run with established parties have built-in advantages of partisan affiliation — most notably, the resources of the Republican or Democratic parties and that 78 percent of Nebraska voters belong to these parties, per the Nebraska Secretary of State’s office.
If it were in fact too easy for independents to gain ballot access, one would think they’d litter the state’s elected offices. Yet Nebraska has never elected an independent governor. Its only independent U.S. senator was George Norris, architect of the nonpartisan Legislature, who served his first three terms as a Republican before being re-elected in 1936 without a party affiliation for his final term.
Today, more than one in five — nearly 250,000 — of Nebraska’s voters are registered as nonpartisan. Their choice to exist outside the established political party structure should not make their paths to statewide office more exorbitantly difficult than they already are.