The Unsung Hero of a Biden Victory: Nebraska Congressional District 2

Ernie Chambers and the Black and Blue Dot

By now all of us rabid consumers of election news know the ins and outs of our electoral system, its winner-take-all craziness, and that two states, Maine and Nebraska, apportion their electoral college votes versus a winner-take-all system. I grew up in Nebraska but left to attend college in Colorado in 1989, and throughout my life have visited my parents a couple of times a year, who have lived in the same nondescript Omaha suburb in Congressional District 2 since 1986. Crucial to this story, I lived with my parents before moving to the Netherlands in 2008, meaning that’s my U.S. address of record for voting purposes.

Confession: the 2020 election was the first time I have voted since 1992 when I voted for Ross Perot. I could come up with all of the standard excuses, but it is what it is. Further confession: I wasn’t planning on voting this time around either. What sent me over the edge was a “personal” letter addressed to me at my parents’ house from Donald Trump. It was full of his typical propaganda and claimed America was going to implode if I didn’t send in a campaign contribution. Why was Trump bothering with me?

I did a little research. Nebraska CD-2 was a battleground, its one electoral vote up for grabs — it was enough to awaken me from my civic slumber. The folks at Democrats Abroad directed me to some Nebraska voting resources and I discovered I had been registered as a Republican since 1992! Thus, the propaganda. Since I was already registered, there was still time, and I exercised my right to vote in CD-2 for the first time in nearly 30 years! Man it felt good. It felt even better when that blue dot emerged on the electoral map the day after the election, and we at least knew this thing wasn’t going to end in a tie. Democrats christened Omaha, the state’s and the district’s biggest city, “Joemaha”.

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Nebraska CD-2 Blue Dot (Source: Coursair, https://www.thecorsaironline.com/corsair/the-electoral-college)

But just how secure was this anomaly? A few nights after the election, the major news outlets were reporting statewide results but weren’t breaking down the CD-2 vote. And already the threat of lawsuits was brewing where the results were close. After much searching, I found the count.

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Nebraska CD-2 2020 Election Results (Source: https://electionresults.nebraska.gov/)

Joe Biden won by over 23,000 votes with a 6.9% margin, compared to the overall state which Trump won by a whopping 19%. Do you see the “View Map” button? I innocently clicked on that.

Hang on… something didn’t look quite right…

I kept drilling down and drilling down until I found my neighborhood. There was only one problem with my self-congratulatory return to civic engagement and my battleground vote.

I wasn’t voting in a battleground.

In 2011, my old neighborhood was gerrymandered out of CD-2 into CD-1! To add insult to injury, our little suburb was expressly carved out like an arrowhead, sitting right on the border, while the swanky new subdivision with artificial lakes (along Maass Road) was left in CD-2.

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Border of CD-1 and CD-2 (Source: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/NE#map)

Even my mom, boots on the ground and all, was oblivious. She thought she voted in CD-2 too! I felt manipulated and abused. Gerrymandering is nothing new, but Nebraska is one of two states where it directly effects the electoral vote count. I was going to get to the bottom of this!

To do so, I had to go back nearly 30 years…

In 1991, Governor Ben Nelson (Democrat) signed a bill to give Nebraska a system similar to the one used in Maine for the past 27 years. The Nebraska unicameral legislature narrowly passed the bill 25 to 23 (so by one vote), despite a last-ditch Republican vote to block it. And yes, it’s not an alternate universe, a little over two decades ago Nebraska had a Democrat governor until Nelson left office in 1999. Let that sink in.

The new system meant that instead of Nebraska’s five electoral votes going to whoever won the statewide popular vote (what happens in 48 other states), going forward two at-large electors would be chosen based on the statewide popular vote, and the three districts would then each choose one elector based on the popular vote in each district.

Note: throughout this article, I refer to this system as “proportional,” but it’s not technically a proportional system like we see in Europe. It’s still based on a winner-take-all popular vote, but with a component at the district level. Thanks to an astute reader for bringing this to my attention.

One factor that made the electoral switch possible is Nebraska’s streamlined unicameral legislative system. The Unicameral is unique among the 50 states in that it’s a single house system and officially recognizes no party affiliation (although in practice legislative members identify with a party). With 49 members, it’s also the smallest legislature of any U.S. state.

In practice, this can allow some wild stuff to happen, like folks voting their conscious or voting for what they think is good for the state, rather than party. Republicans currently hold 36 of the 49 seats, but are known to frequently break ranks on votes. Call me crazy but it seems to me this is how a democracy should work. The unicameral structure also means that a single voice can have an oversized impact (more on this to come).

Supporters said this new system was likely to encourage presidential candidates to campaign in what was normally “flyover country” even if they were unlikely to win the popular vote. The bill’s sponsor, DiAnna Schimek, wanted to “energize the electorate and bring more candidates to Nebraska.”¹ Schimek pointed out that if the new system had been in place retroactively, one would have to go back 26 years (1964) for the system to result in a different allocation of electoral votes, and in this case it would have benefited the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater.

If this was the intent, by all counts, the initiative has been a success, resulting in more campaign spending in the state by both parties over the years — even Hillary Clinton campaigned there in 2016. It’s definitely given Democrats in the state a chance to be heard, and most recently, was the catalyst for Donald Trump’s now infamous Omaha “freeze out” campaign stop just before the 2020 election. In 2020, Nebraska had record voter engagement of over 76%², far higher than the national average of 66.5%.

With the new procedure on the books for the 1992 election, the next 16 years proceeded to produce outcomes that would have been no different than a winner-take-all system, Nebraska’s five electoral votes going to same candidate, until…

In 2008, Nebraska Republicans’ worst fears were realized. Barack Obama took CD-2 by 3,400 votes and margin of 1.2%, and won its one electoral vote, while John McCain won the statewide vote by 15%, the first time the system resulted in a different outcome than winner-take-all.

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CD-2 2008 Election Result (Source: https://sos.nebraska.gov/elections/previous-elections)

In doing so, Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win an electoral vote in the state in 44 years. Nebraska Republicans could not let this stand! If you are still with me, this is where things get nefarious — the gerrymander was on…

In 2008, CD-2 was largely comprised of Omaha (to the chagrin of Republicans, now branded “Obamaha”) with its white urban loft dwellers and large black and Hispanic communities, some older suburban subdivisions and Offutt Air Force Base, America’s nuclear command and control center.

In 2011, fresh off the 2010 census, timing was ripe to lessen CD-2’s impact. After the Republicans’ brazen plan to break up Douglas county, with Omaha as its county seat, didn’t work, “the legislature reacted by moving several racially mixed neighborhoods into overwhelmingly Republican CD-1, replacing them with more affluent suburban precincts. CD-2’s 25% minority population wound up being much smaller than it would have been in 2012, even though the Hispanic and black populations were both growing.”³ “In a state that’s only 4.9% black, the small number of minority voters was shifted to an area where they would be an even smaller minority,” said former Democratic state Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha, who is black.³

Not content to stop there, Republicans lined up their next target: Offutt Air Force Base and its surrounding military-rich neighborhoods, including where I grew up as an Air Force brat.

Military bases typically aren’t radical leftist hotbeds, but it’s all relative in Nebraska. Having served in the US Air Force for nine years, I can speak to the fact that while military communities have their fair share of conservatives, they also have a relatively high proportion of minorities, especially in in the enlisted ranks, and this can skew Democrat. It’s also a relatively transient population, which translates to lower levels of civic engagement than permanent residents.

Probably about 40% of my parents’ neighborhood is somehow associated with the air force base. Here’s a pre-election photo. Like I said, it’s all relative.

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Nebraska leftist hotbed: Quail Creek (Source: my parents)

By moving Offutt and the surrounding community into the 1st and keeping areas with higher Republican registration in the 2nd, the latter’s Democratic edge was diluted.⁴

As if the gerrymander wasn’t enough, in 2011 GOP party leaders threatened to withdraw financial support for any state senator who voted against a measure to abolish the proportional system altogether, which in any event failed.⁵

In 2012, the GOP plan worked to perfection. Mitt Romney took the newly configured CD-2 from Obama by 19,000 votes, a blue dot no longer blighting a sea of pristine red. Like an aging prize fighter going for one more shot at the title, CD-2 never had a chance.

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CD-2 2012 Election Result (Source: https://sos.nebraska.gov/elections/previous-elections)

CD-2 had been shrunk, chiseled and chipped until it could take no more. 2016 appeared to cement CD-2’s fate: Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 6,500 votes. You can see below how Nebraska’s congressional districts have morphed over the years, the ever shrinking and shapeshifting CD-2 slowly whittled away to all but its Omaha core.

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Historical and present district boundaries (source: Wikipedia⁵)

While some of the changes can be chalked up to demographic shifts, a lot can’t, especially along CD-2's southern border.

But the Nebraska GOP wanted to remove even the chance of split electoral votes occurring ever again. Since Nebraska adopted the proportional system in 1991, state GOP lawmakers have tried and failed at least 16 times to pass legislation that would abolish the system. You heard that right: 16 times. In fact, the GOP has made it a “legislative priority” to reverse the proportional system.⁶ While Nebraska Republicans love their unique unicameral legislature, when it comes to electoral voting, they don’t like sticking out.

According to Ryan Hamilton, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, the system is based on “arbitrary lines” that encourages gerrymandering.⁶

Uh, yeah… by you guys. So they want to do away with abusing legislative boundaries because they abuse them? I guess there’s some logic to that — kind of like an alcoholic not keeping alcohol in the house. Hamilton went further saying he knew a vast majority of Nebraskans would support it, “given how many of them are shut out of the process.”⁶

Huh?

Which Nebraskans are shut out? The Trump voters in CD-2? What about all the Biden voters in CD-1 (myself included) and CD-3? On a national level, what about a Trump voter in California? Now there’s someone that can legitimately claim they are shut out! Unfortunately what we have here is just another case of “we want everyone to be heard as long as it’s us.”

Let’s run through a few of the other reasons the Nebraska GOP has advanced to justify its gerrymandering and ultimately bring back the winner-take-all system:

  • The winner-take-all system reflects the will of majority voters (well, in 2020, Donald Trump captured 59% of the Nebraska popular vote, but got 80% of the electoral votes, so I would say “the will was reflected”),
  • Republican Nebraska is at a disadvantage by not awarding all of its votes to the statewide winner like in 48 other states (I understand the sentiment, but it’s not so simple. According to 270towin, if all states had a proportional system like Nebraska and Maine in 2012, Romney probably would have won, and Trump still probably would have won in 2016. You could just as easily say the other 48 are at a disadvantage!),
  • It’s the principle of being different than 48 other states (but I guess they are OK with being the only state having a unicameral legislature?),
  • Democrats would do the same to us if they were in our position (I have no response).

Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, believes more states should follow Nebraska’s lead⁶, and I agree with her. It makes the state more competitive and politicians courting its voters sharper. The proportional system means more voters will be more engaged across both parties, and that must be a good thing.

Nevertheless, Nebraska sentiment doesn’t seem to favor the continued existence of the proportional system. In fact, in 2016 it was being read its last rites, the Nebraska GOP pulling out all the stops facing the prospect of a Hillary Clinton-led blue dot. In 99 out of 100 scenarios, its fate would have paralleled that of a boxer in a Jack London novel. CD-2 was set up for the knockout blow — all the cards were in place.

But there was an X-factor. CD-2 had a tenacious trainer in its corner: Ernie Chambers. And he was busy administering smelling salts…

You can’t tell the story of Nebraska CD-2 without telling the story of Ernie Chambers, who calls himself a “Defender of the Downtrodden”. Now 83 years old, he is the longest serving state senator in Nebraska history, having represented North Omaha for 46 years, known for his casual attire of jeans and short sleeve sweatshirts. For most of his career, he was the only non-white senator, and the only openly atheist member of any state legislator in the United States. As a kid growing up in Omaha, my father would keep me regularly informed of Ernie’s exploits, even though I didn’t fully appreciate it back then.

Ernie would have even more years under his belt except the Nebraska legislature passed a term limit law in 2000 (with him in mind) that forced him to sit out four years in 2008, but he was back in action in 2012.

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Young Ernie Chambers, year unknown (permission Ernie Chambers)

Ernie is a civil rights activist with a long history of supporting progressive policies, including racial justice, police reform, and feminist and LGBTQ rights (50 years ahead of his time). He has been a tireless opponent of the death penalty, finally achieving his goal of banning it in 2015 after 36 attempts in 40 years, only to have the repeal overturned in the 2016 election.

In 2007, Ernie Chambers filed a lawsuit against God to emphasize his belief that access to the court system shouldn’t be restricted and that the doors to the courthouse should be open to everyone. The lawsuit was thrown out in October 2008 because a subpoena notifying God of the lawsuit could not be delivered to God, who has no listed address. Chambers countered that, because of God’s omniscience, God had been notified.⁷

He has also courted some controversy over the years, the most high profile example being when he said “My ISIS is the police” during a Judiciary Committee Hearing in 2015 when a police officer wasn’t prosecuted for a fatal shooting.⁷

In 2016 at age 79, Chambers single-handedly fought tooth and nail to oppose a bill that would end Nebraska’s proportional electoral system. “I said, ‘You’re not going to take away that one little bit of impact that the people in this district may have on selecting the president.’”⁸

He fell back on a tactic that has served him well over the years when outgunned — what he calls “extended debate”.

Others might call it something else: filibustering.

Now a Chamber’s filibuster is not your ordinary filibuster. Although he’s never practiced law, he has a law degree. “I offer amendments, which I can speak on. I offer motions under the rules, which I can speak on. Then senators who felt that what I was saying was right, but were afraid to speak, would yield me time,” he says. “… The more time we spent on that one bill, the less time was available for other legislation that the other senators were interested in. And that was what I’ve done throughout my career.”⁹ Chambers’ filibuster stamina is legendary. He never sits down during senate sessions, and more amazing, he never has to use the bathroom. “I was relentless and I would hold their feet to the fire,” Chambers said of that experience.⁹

For the 2016 bill, facing Ernie’s ability to stretch arguments out for hours and his remarkable bladder, Republicans eventually achieved enough votes, 34, to end the filibuster. Reflecting on that experience, Ernie said, “they took me to the mat.”

The bill made it to a final hearing, and on April 12, when the last arguments were to be made, Robert Hilkemann, the bill’s sponsor, was confident they had a majority. “I thought we were going to get it,” Hilkemann said. But that morning, two of his supporters mysteriously flipped their vote and the bill failed by one vote.⁹

The immediate consequences of Ernie’s stand meant that for the 2016 Presidential election, Nebraska electoral votes could still be proportionally awarded. While all five electoral votes went to Donald Trump that year, Chambers always had a feeling that the real significance of his stand would become apparent in the years to come.

“It means that now when people start organizing at the neighborhood level, it matters because we can get one of those votes,” he said at the time.¹⁰ “Every person who casts a ballot should have the assurance that that vote is going to count,” Chambers told Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered.⁹

I would argue it’s not the voting result that matters the most, but how you arrive at the votes. In a two-horse race in a winner-take-all system, you can arrive at five electoral votes for candidate X by 51 of 100 people voting for that candidate, or, like the current system in Nebraska, you could arrive at five electoral votes by 51 of 100 people voting for that candidate for two electoral votes (statewide popular vote), and 17 out of 33 people voting for that candidate in each of the three districts for one electoral vote each, increasing the chances that each individual vote will have an impact in allocating electoral votes. In effect, each vote is counted twice, once at the state level and once at the district level.

But it has knock-on effects. It means candidates have to pay more attention to the state, and it means people have more freedom to vote independently and not just give away electoral power along party lines.⁸

Ernie likened it to the people of the 2nd District getting “one taste of sweet nectar” and they’ll “never get over it.” “Maybe the people in the 2nd District liked the feeling they got from realizing that their vote could mean something,” he says.⁹ Heck, it got me to vote. I enjoyed my nectar even though it was in CD-1 (but maybe not as much as some CD-2 nectar!).

Is it a coincidence that the most consequential carve up of CD-2 occurred during the years Ernie was forced out of office? Nebraska CD-2 is black and blue because it’s taken a beating over the years. But it had the opportunity to turn blue in 2020 because a black man made it so.

As I stared at the Nebraska CD-2 blue dot, I began to ask myself, “Why aren’t there more blue dots?” Of course, the answer is — they are there — you just don’t see them. Our electoral system blots them out. Just like there are red dots in seas of blue. Ever been to Northern California? Bring out all the blue dots and red dots I say! We need more electoral systems like Nebraska, not the other way around. Zoom in on any state electoral map and you will see red and blue congressional districts scattered everywhere. Why not give these people their sweet taste of nectar as well?

We all feel the need to be heard — and that’s the beauty of the Nebraska electoral system. My frustration with not feeling heard in Nebraska CD-1 led me to write this article. But even if your candidate doesn’t win, you feel more engaged if you vote, and if your vote has two chances to count, you are even more likely to vote. But the electoral system has evolved to a point that it blunts voter engagement on both sides of the political spectrum.

The winner-take-all electoral system is a bygone relic that has proven its ability to disenfranchise wide swaths of the voting public (myself included), but it’s in every state’s power to switch to a proportional system as a first step in presidential election reform. More states need to adopt the Nebraska and Maine systems, not the opposite.

Large swaths of our population aren’t feeling heard. It’s led to people joining militias, rioting in the streets, and people making themselves heard through violence, contempt and hatred. For me, the 2020 election came too close for comfort to breaking our wonderful democratic experiment as some peoples’ demands to be heard superseded even democracy itself.

In my opinion, preserving our democracy got huge assists from a few courageous individuals: Ernie Chambers refusing to take a pee break during a 2016 filibuster. The Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger refusing to buckle to immense Republican party pressure and just “count the votes”.

Let’s give more people the taste of sweet nectar through having their vote count, whatever side of the political spectrum they are on. Isn’t that a better way for people to be heard?

If you are Nebraska legislator and you’ve made it this far, I believe the proportional electoral system is good for you as well. It’s given you much more than a regional stage — in fact it’s given you an international stage. People all over the world were glued to the US election news, and I ended up giving countless impromptu Nebraska civics lessons to my international friends. Here I am writing about Nebraska politics from the Netherlands. My advice would be not to be so hasty before you proceed posthaste to try and throw it away. Why not instead show the world how Nebraska democracy survives and thrives? And it may seem outlandish to say this right now, but you never know when the shoe will be on the other foot.

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Ernie Chambers at the Nebraska State Capitol Building, 2020 (permission Ernie Chambers)

What type of person files a lawsuit against God? I would say that’s also a person that wants to be heard.

Ernie Chambers is being forced out of the Nebraska State Legislature in January after 46 years of service to the citizens of Nebraska, as he’s once again run into the term limit law. Thank you, Ernie, for all you have done for your Nebraska constituents, and thank you for your tireless work to help the downtrodden to be heard.

I hope the Nebraska proportional electoral system continues after you are gone, but it’s going to be hard to find a replacement trainer of your caliber and dedication, and we’re going to need one. I hope we’ll be hearing more from you at age 87 — the downtrodden still need you.

About David Grover

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David Grover is the CEO of Falcon Grove Productions, a Netherlands-based film and television production company.

His most recent project is “Trumped by Music”, a documentary series profiling musicians protesting against Donald Trump.

He grew up in Omaha, Nebraska and attended Papillion-LaVista High School in Papillion, Nebraska. 2020 was the first time he wasn’t able to visit Nebraska in 34 years.

David Grover is the CEO of Falcon Grove Productions, a Netherlands-based film and television production company. His most recent project is “Trumped by Music”.

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