Charlie Janssen

Nebraska state Sen. Charlie Janssen, of Fremont, speaks in Lincoln, Neb., in February 2010. He is proposing legislation to change how electoral votes are awarded in Nebraska. 

LINCOLN | Some five years after Democrat Barack Obama peeled off one of Nebraska’s electoral votes in the presidential election, the sting remains for Republicans.

And on Tuesday, lawmakers began debate on a bill that would return the state to a winner-take-all system for its five votes.

Introduced by Fremont Sen. Charlie Janssen -- who is seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination -- the bill would make it so the presidential candidate who prevails statewide would get all the state's electoral votes. Now, two go to the statewide winner, one to the winner in each of the three congressional districts. Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that split electoral votes.

"When Nebraska changed from winner-take-all to our present system, there were claims that Nebraska would see an influx of presidential candidates and campaigns," Janssen said. "Claims were also made that voter turnout would markedly increase. Those claims have not been realized in any great measure.

"Some would argue that what we have done is diminish our clout in a national election by potentially going from the ability to guarantee five electoral votes to a scenario where Nebraska might offer only four or even three electoral votes to the candidates," he said.

Lawmakers approved the current system in 1991. Republicans have attempted to repeal the split-vote system before, but the effort gained renewed momentum when Obama won metropolitan Omaha's 2nd District vote in 2008, denying Republican nominee John McCain one of Nebraska's electoral votes.

Nebraska has not gone with a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, an independent, said he will filibuster the measure.

"This is a piece of partisan -- some people thought I was going to say something else, but I don't use that kind of language," Chambers said. "We are going to call this thing just what it is. Strictly and purely partisan. This is one of those bills I will go to the mat on."

The GOP controls the Nebraska Legislature, even though it is officially nonpartisan. Of its 49 members, 30 are Republicans, 17 are Democrats and two are independents.

Sen. Ken Schilz, a Republican, conceded the measure is partisan.

"It's politics. It's about where the power is, where the power lies and what can you do with that power as you wield it," he said. "So there's the realities of it."

According to the U.S. Electoral College, the system was established by the founding fathers as a compromise between election of the president by Congress and election by popular vote. States use various methods to select their electors. In Nebraska, they are selected by the political parties.

Elsewhere in the U.S., both parties have rallied behind splitting electoral votes when they see a way to chip at the opposing party's stronghold. Republicans largely supported bills that would split electoral votes in Pennsylvania and Michigan after Obama won the majority of votes in both states in 2012. In 2007, California Republicans backed an initiative that would allow each congressional district to award two electoral votes to its presidential winner.

Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale has said that dividing the state's electoral votes weakens its potential influence. If every state followed Nebraska's lead, he said, it would be highly unlikely that either major party candidate would reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. The election would then be thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives, he said.

Chambers and Democratic Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln noted that the state Republican Party adopted a resolution in 2011 that said the GOP would not back or endorse any lawmaker who failed to support returning to the winner-take-all system.

"That's sour grapes," Conrad said, wondering aloud if the party would try a similar tactic to drum up support for issues like the death penalty. "Governing by ransom note will not be tolerated. What's next? Where do we draw the line?"

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