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Change in Nebraska ballot initiative requirements shrinks rural political power

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Game-changer.

The preliminary federal court injunction pointing toward elimination of the state constitutional requirement that initiative proposals in Nebraska must contain the signatures of 5% of registered voters in at least 38 counties in order to gain access to the ballot signals a reduction of rural political power in the state.

In political terms, there are huge differences between rural and urban Nebraskans; it's dramatically reflected in election results and in representation in the Legislature.

All but one of the 17 Democrats serving in the 49-member, non-partisan Legislature hail from either Lincoln or metropolitan Omaha. The exception is Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont. 

Both Sen. Deb Fischer and Gov. Pete Ricketts lost in both Omaha and Lincoln while piling up support in most of the rest of the state during their most recent successful reelection bids.  Rep. Don Bacon lost in Omaha and former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry lost in Lincoln two years ago when they won reelection. 

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Lia Post holds up a sign while collecting signatures for a medical marijuana ballot measure in Elmwood in February.

While former President Donald Trump won handily statewide in 2020, he lost both Lincoln and Omaha along with the 2nd Congressional District's electoral vote.

Look to the vote on the 2018 Medicaid expansion initiative for perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of the sharp political divide between rural and urban Nebraskans when they consider a major policy issue. 

Voters in 84 of the state's 93 counties rejected the Medicaid proposal, but it was approved by a 51,000-vote margin in Douglas County and by 26,000 votes in Lancaster County and it ultimately prevailed by 47,000 votes statewide.

Politically, there are two very distinct Nebraskas, one urban and one rural.

Once federal courts have ruled on the challenge to the state's current 38-county ballot initiative requirement, it appears that it will become much easier for urban interests to take issues to a vote of the people if they are stymied in the Legislature where 17 of the 49 senators can block proposals with a successful filibuster.

U.S. District Judge John Gerrard's ruling entering a temporary injunction eases the pathway now for an initiative proposal to legalize medical marijuana in Nebraska to gain access to the general election ballot this year.

The current 38-county requirement presents a logistical, financial, manpower and time-factor challenge, and it leads to reliance on paid petition circulators. Some of those barriers could be eased or erased by the anticipated court ruling.  

Although Republicans and conservatives maintain their substantial statewide voter advantage, which is further strengthened by robust rural voter turnout, a final federal court ruling on the medical marijuana lawsuit could help clear a pathway for change.

Not revolutionary or dramatic, perhaps, but potentially some future significant policy enactments.

                                                   *   *   *

The rare special election that's approaching a week from now on June 28 allows voters in the 1st Congressional District to focus their attention on a single political race.

Who do they want to represent them in the House of Representatives?

And what's important to them?

There's been a single televised debate and although it began hesitantly, with the candidates perhaps a little ill at ease, both Patty Pansing Brooks and Mike Flood appeared to become comfortable and effectively delivered their messages.

So, as odd as it might seem to head to the voting booth a week into summer, let's do it. Because it will matter.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade abortion rights, perhaps as early as the day before, could conceivably spark the turnout. 

And then we'll do it all over again in November, with the June 28 winner's congressional voting record on the line as the incumbent candidate. 

That will be an unusually early assessment and job performance review.

                                             *   *   *

Finishing up:

* One state: University of Nebraska Medical Center Chancellor Jeffrey Gold points to the need to "increase access to health care workforce pipelines in rural Nebraska to improve the quality of life for all our communities (and) to support economic sustainability" out west beyond Lincoln and Omaha. 

* After running second -- but only 137 votes behind -- in the May primary election, Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte is generally regarded as the most vulnerable incumbent state senator in the November general election. But there are several close contests brewing in metropolitan Omaha, presumably including the first electoral test for newly-appointed Sen. Kathleen Kauth.  

* Summertime ... and the living is easy, beginning Tuesday. Windchill in the 90s. Sunset around 9 p.m. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSdon

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