In 2008, for the first time in 44 years, red-state Nebraska awarded one of its Electoral College votes to the Democratic presidential candidate, and aghast Republican Party leaders decided they wouldn’t let it happen again.
They redrew the state’s political lines so the congressional district that favored Barack Obama and included the state’s largest black community would take in more Republican voters. Then they pushed the change through the Legislature despite Democrats’ complaints.
The doctoring worked: When Obama ran for re-election, the new district went to Republican Mitt Romney by a comfortable margin. In most states, that would be the end of the story — a naked but predictable case of gerrymandering for political advantage.
But in Nebraska, a state with a different slant on partisanship, the episode didn’t sit well. This year, a number of Republicans, including the Legislature’s speaker, are joining with the outnumbered Democrats to back an idea that’s almost unthinkable in the current hyperpolarized climate: turning over political map drawing to a new independent commission and lessening the role of politics in the process.
Only six states have similar nonpartisan panels for congressional redistricting, and those were often installed by voters, not politicians.
“There was a certain segment of the public that did not have faith in the maps we adopted,” said state Sen. John Murante, a Republican who helped draw the new GOP-friendly map as a legislative staffer before he was elected, and now is backing the new system.
The proposal appears to have a good chance of passing, with support from top Republicans.
Kathay Feng, national redistricting coordinator for the liberal group Common Cause, said it’s almost unheard of for legislators to willingly give up their power to set legislative and congressional boundaries.
“I’d call it refreshing,” Feng said. “It reflects an increasing clamor from grassroots groups that say, ‘We won’t stand it anymore.'”
Majority parties usually aren’t shy about changing election districts. In 2010, when the GOP had an edge in a majority of legislatures, the resulting maps helped Republicans win a 33-seat U.S. House majority even while receiving 1.4 million fewer votes than Democratic candidates.
Nebraska’s 2nd District was a mixed bag politically in 2008, even though Republicans outnumber Democrats by 18 percent statewide. It included urban Omaha, with its warehouse lofts and African-American community, and some older suburban subdivisions and Offutt Air Force Base.
After Obama carried the district by a single percentage point over Republican John McCain, the Legislature reacted by moving several racially mixed neighborhoods into the overwhelming Republican 1st District, replacing them with more affluent suburban precincts. The 2nd District’s 25 percent minority population wound up being much smaller than it would have been in 2012, even though the Hispanic and black populations were both growing.
Thanks to the new borders, the GOP’s edge over Democrats in the 2nd rose by about 2,500 voters.
In a state that’s only 4.9 percent black, “The small number of minority voters was shifted to an area where they would be an even smaller minority,” said former Democratic state Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha, who is black.
But Nebraska’s history can make such political manipulations awkward. The state has the nation’s only single-chamber Legislature, and members don’t organize by party or have formal party leadership. Republicans hold 36 of the 49 seats but frequently break ranks on votes.
“It’s what people expect of the unicameral,” said Republican Galen Hadley, speaker of the Legislature.
Sen. Heath Mello, an Omaha Democrat who served on the legislative committee that drew the districts in 2011, said the redistricting vote after the 2008 election was distasteful to lawmakers from both parties.
“It’s the one experience I’ve had in my legislative career that really felt like raw partisanship, and it didn’t need to be,” Mello said.
Under the new plan, district maps would be drawn by a nine-member independent panel appointed by lawmakers from each of the state’s three congressional districts. No more than five could have the same political affiliation. The system wouldn’t eliminate any political considerations, but states with similar panels have had fewer complaints about gerrymandering.
The next opportunity to draw new maps won’t happen until after the next census in 2020.
Republican Sen. Bob Krist said the change could help the GOP if the growth in urban and Hispanic voters eventually gives Democrats the upper hand.
“Someday, you may be in the minority,” Krist said.
Murante said he’s primarily concerned about the views of Nebraska voters who were disappointed with by the map tinkering.
“I hope that with this bill, we can improve the level of public trust,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.