"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.
It has never happened before.
It almost certainly will never happen again.
Calling it a fluke is hardly unreasonable. Calling it a rare confluence of circumstances in 2008 would, however, be reasonable, and certainly accurate.
“It” was the unprecedented general election triumph in Nebraska’s Second Congressional District (Douglas County and roughly the northeast half of neighboring Sarpy County) by Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee. An unofficial final count had Obama winning the district by 3,325 votes.
The unprecedented result is that Nebraska formally will cast four of its five Electoral College votes for Republican John McCain. The single remaining Nebraska Electoral College vote goes to Obama, thanks to those majority ballots in the Second District.
This really is a very long-running tale, starting with the invention of the Electoral College by delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. They cooked up the Electoral College as the formal method for choosing the president every four years, although back then everybody knew that George Washington would be our first chief magistrate, without opposition.
Nebraska’s twist on the Electoral College system is nowhere that ancient. It arrived in a bill passed by the Unicameral in 1991, allowing congressional district tallies independent of the classic winner-take-all votes representing the two U.S. senators in all states.
This idea of an Electoral College division was promoted by editorials in the afternoon Lincoln Journal. I speak here with some authority, having written all those newspaper editorials. The candid hope was that, in overwhelmingly Republican Nebraska, outnumbered Democrats just might have a remote chance in the geographically compact Second District. Realistically, the hope was darned slim.
Nevertheless, one-time state Democratic chairperson, Lincoln Sen. DiAnna Schimek, sponsored the option bill in the technically nonpartisan 49-member Legislature. Miracle of miracles, it passed! And Gov. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat, signed it into law. Republicans apparently were unworried that the Second District might stray from its steady GOP moorings in future presidential elections. Even so, they weren’t about to take risks.
In virtually every legislative session thereafter, Republicans pushed efforts to repeal Schimek’s 1991 measure. And in every session, Schimek was constant and vigorous in defense. Yet once they did succeed, only to have another Democratic governor, Ben Nelson, frustrate them with a veto. It was not overridden.
Today, you may take it as an article of faith that a repeal bill will be popped into the 2009 Legislature before February. If (or when) enacted, the current Republican governor, having a super-political reputation, won’t waste a moment before going along with his partisan brethren before unloading a veto. Which is why I conclude that what happened this year, boosting Barack Obama’s total Electoral College vote with a helpful tally from Nebraska, might never occur a second time.
The ironic twist is that the Democratic president-elect doesn’t need that one Electoral College vote from Nebraska. He’s got enough in other states to exceed the minimum needed for entering the White House.
Around here, the story is still satisfying. What was ventured years ago paid off.