LINCOLN — Independent voters could help choose Republican and Democratic candidates under a legislative measure introduced Thursday.
Legislative Bill 773 would allow independents to vote in party primaries for all partisan offices.
Current state law allows independents to vote in party primaries for federal offices, but they are restricted to voting only for nonpartisan state and local offices in the primary.
Republican State Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis introduced the bill, along with a bipartisan group of co-sponsors.
He said opening up party primaries — at least partly — would increase voter turnout.
It also would give a voice to independents who live in heavily Republican parts of the state, where elections are decided for all practical purposes by the GOP primary, he said.
Independents, who are officially registered as nonpartisan, are the fastest growing group of Nebraska voters.
Last year, they constituted 19 percent of registered voters. That compares with 48 percent of voters registered as Republicans and 33 percent registered as Democrats.
Leaders of the two major parties reserved judgment on the idea Thursday.
J.L. Spray, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party, sounded skeptical.
“Obviously we have an interest in having folks that are committed to the Republican Party vote in the primary,” he said. “That's sort of the point of a party.”
Spray said allowing independents to vote in U.S. Senate and U.S. House primaries has not caused problems, but the party doesn't like the idea.
Vince Powers, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said the party's central committee is looking at opening its primaries to independents. The party could make that decision without a law.
Powers said the idea created considerable discussion at the group's most recent meeting and was carried over for further debate.
States vary on who can vote in state and local party primaries.
Some, like Nebraska, limit primaries to voters registered with the party. Others open their primaries to all voters, even those of other parties. Some have them open to independents.
LB 773 was one of two measures introduced that would give major makeovers to primary elections.
The other, LB 742, would allow for instant “runoffs” in primary elections.
The bill, introduced by Sen. John Murante of Gretna, sets up a process in which candidates always could win with majority support.
Murante said that would put candidates in a stronger position. Under the current process, a candidate in a crowded field, such as the six Republicans running for governor, could win a primary election with 25 percent or less of the vote.
Under LB 742, instead of voting for just one candidate, voters would rank the candidates.
If no candidate collects more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the lowest total would be eliminated. The second-choice votes of his or her supporters then would be counted and added to the totals of the remaining candidates.
The process would continue until one candidate achieves a majority.
Lawmakers introduced a total of 49 bills and one proposed constitutional amendment on the second day of the 2014 session.
School aid: More money would stay in the state school aid pool under LB 725, introduced by Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids. Without the bill, rising valuations on agricultural land means the amount needed for aid in the 2014-15 school year would be less than had been budgeted. The bill would change the formula to keep aid at the $921 million budgeted level.
Military parents: Divorced members of the military who are deployed far from home could delegate their parenting time to a relative or family friend under LB 769, introduced by Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue. Plans for delegating parenting time would be subject to court approval.
Tornado plans: Schools would be required to have tornado drill policies under LB 741, introduced by Murante. The policies would have to include three drills per year and plans for evacuating students from playgrounds, athletic fields, portable classrooms and school buses.
Petitions: Petition organizers would need to collect fewer signatures to put a proposed constitutional amendment or proposed new law before voters under Legislative Resolution 393CA, introduced by Murante. Petitions for constitutional amendments would require signatures from 5 percent of registered voters instead of 10 percent. Petitions for laws would require signatures from 3 percent of voters instead of 7 percent.
Sewer project: Omaha would get some help paying for its $2 billion sewer project under LB 760, introduced by Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha. Under the bill, additional state sales taxes generated by higher sewer fees would be returned to the city for use on the project. A portion of the taxes would go to help other cities pay for similar, federally mandated sewer projects.
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