Politics

How State Sen. Ernie Chambers Helped Keep Nebraska's Electoral College Votes Split

Nebraska's longest serving state Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha addresses supporters on the stairs of the Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., on Aug. 13. Chambers helped keep Nebraska's electoral votes split.
Nebraska's longest serving state Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha addresses supporters on the stairs of the Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., on Aug. 13. Chambers helped keep Nebraska's electoral votes split.
Nati Harnik/AP

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Nebraska is a heavily Republican state. But for the second time since 2008, it's awarding one of its Electoral College votes to a Democrat.

Nebraska is one of only two states to split Electoral College votes. Nebraska has five. Two votes go to the overall state winner, while one vote goes to each of the state's three congressional districts. The split system was first used in 1992 in an effort to attract candidates to campaign there.

Since then, state Republicans have tried repeatedly to change back to the winner-take-all system seen in most other states. But their efforts have often been thwarted by one longtime progressive state senator: Ernie Chambers.

"Every person who casts a ballot should have the assurance that that vote is going to count," Chambers tells Ari Shapiro on All Things Considered. "I've been able, whenever it came up during my time here, to stop them from doing away with that split vote system."

The 2nd Congressional District, which includes Omaha and its suburbs, is now seen as a miniature swing state. Biden won the district with 52% to Trump's 46% last week.

Chambers, 83, has represented the heavily Black North Omaha area in the unicameral state Legislature since 1971. For most of his career he's been the lone nonwhite person there. He's been elected 12 times. A measure passed in 2000 with Chambers in mind limits lawmakers to two consecutive terms. Chambers had to take a term off but was reelected in 2012. Now he's approaching his second term limit.

"As of the date that I leave, people in the 2nd District can still be in a position to give that one electoral vote to whoever wins this district," Chambers says.

He likens the ability for the 2nd District to have its own Electoral College vote as people getting "one taste of sweet nectar" and they'll "never get over it."

Strategists had mapped out scenarios where Biden and Trump could each have gotten 269 electoral votes, with Omaha being the place to put one of them over the top.

"Maybe the people in the 2nd District liked the feeling they got from realizing that their vote could mean something," he says.

State Republicans have tried at least 15 times in the Legislature to bring back the winner-take-all system that would favor Republicans in the presidential election.

Chambers, known as a master of legislative rules and maneuvers, would often halt the Republican efforts by filibustering. The closest the state came to overturning the split vote system was in 2016.

"I was relentless and I would hold their feet to the fire," Chambers says of that experience.

"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."

Chambers is the longest-serving Nebraska state lawmaker. His official biography lists his occupation as "Defender of the Downtrodden." He's dedicated much of his legislative efforts to racial justice. One of his achievements was leading Nebraska to abolish the death penalty in 2015, though it was later overturned. He also wrote laws to institute district instead of at-large elections for Omaha's city council, which helped Black Omahans gain representation, and he helped ban corporal punishment in schools.

He's courted controversy as well over the decades, such as when he compared police to ISIS or filed a lawsuit against God.

The end of his latest term is coming in January. He's quick to point out that he's not retiring, but has been forced out.

Chambers is open to running again, but will be 87 the next time he's able to run for his longtime seat in 2024. He's not sure what comes next for him.

"I look at life as an almost infinite series of existential incidents which are strung together like a string of pearls," he says. "Nobody knows how long it will be, but if you take each pearl or live each instant as you're in that instant, there is nothing you cannot endure."

Sam Gringlas and Justine Kenin produced and edited the audio interview.

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