Redistricting at the Nebraska Legislature is difficult enough under normal circumstances during a 90-day legislative session. But this year, lawmakers had to attempt the map changes in an extraordinarily compressed time frame, due to late release of the census data. The special session last month stretched over a mere three weeks.
Yet the lawmakers succeeded.
The initial dust-ups were heated, to be sure, and at various stages the process seemed headed toward deadlock and failure. But ultimately, strong majorities of lawmakers across lines of party and philosophy voted “yes” to the final maps for the congressional districts and state legislative seats — compromise maps achieved after hard, complex negotiating.
No member of the Legislature was fully satisfied with the final maps, but that’s the nature of compromise.
In bringing the redistricting process to a successful conclusion, lawmakers served the public interest. Approval of the maps enables state and local election officials to prepare for the 2022 primary and general election. Nebraskans considering running for office now know what district they’re in. And, not least, the Legislature showed the public that on redistricting — one of the most divisive of issues — lawmakers could summon the needed resolve to find solutions rather than succumbing to Congress-style bitterness and stalemate.
Various factors came together to produce this positive outcome. The time pressure compelled lawmakers to seek out compromise. Speaker Mike Hilgers added to the pressure by telling lawmakers that if they failed to reach agreement by the end of September, the Legislature would adjourn, rather than stewing in lawmakers’ recriminations, and take up the issue in January. The positive working relationship between the Redistricting Committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, and the vice chair, Sen. Justin Wayne, contributed well to the process. Lawmakers who had legitimate complaints over boundary changes in the end did not seek to derail the process given the limited time available. Normally hardline partisans refrained from seeking 100% of their demands, acknowledging that there weren’t enough votes to prevail.
In the face of a seemingly intractable stalemate over which rural district would be moved to the east due to population trends, Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg broke the deadlock by agreeing that his district could be moved. Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Omaha, whose district wound up being radically changed, did not mount an all-out fight to block the map, acknowledging that the need to incorporate a new district in the Omaha area unavoidably required changes in boundaries.
The session pointed out long-term issues that lawmakers and the public must consider. Given the population trends, state legislative districts in western Nebraska seem destined to become ever-larger. If only a handful of districts is available to represent areas west of Kearney, westerners’ trust in the Legislature could erode. It’s appropriate, then, for Nebraskans to consider increasing the number of seats in the Legislature. The urban-rural percentage allocation of seats would still rightly reflect growing urban numbers, to ensure that all votes are given equal weight.
Future stalemate over redistricting remains a significant possibility in Nebraska, and an independent redistricting commission, as in Iowa, is a worthy goal.
Hard feelings linger among some Nebraska state senators, given their legitimate disappointment over some of the map details. But once the next session begins in January, lawmakers must move past that emotional roadblock. Senators must not let ill will from this year’s redistricting debate sidetrack the chances for legislative progress in 2022.