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Partisanship in a nonpartisan setting: The Nebraska state legislature

Rhonda J Saferstein, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The literature shows that term-limited state legislatures are more polarized than their non-term-limited counterparts. Since Nebraska has the only nonpartisan single-chambered legislature in the country it is excluded from most of those studies. What happens to a nonpartisan legislature when it is term limited? Is a term-limited nonpartisan legislature more likely to be polarized than a non-term-limited nonpartisan legislature? The Nebraska State Legislature was compared to itself before and after the implementation of term limits. The primary theme of this dissertation is that the Nebraska State Legislature polarized because of term limits that were passed by the Nebraska electorate as a ballot initiative in 2000 and fully implemented in 2007. Roll call votes were used to measure party support over a 15 year period from 1996 to 2010 on an individual and aggregate level. I find that the primary cause of party polarization in the Nebraska State Legislature is term limits. Term limits have both direct and indirect effects on polarization (see Figure 3.1). The direct effect occurs because an increase in legislative turnover translates into new, less experienced legislators arriving with an attachment to the political party that helped them win their elections. These new members are not familiar with each other or the lobbyists who attempted to educate and influence them. Relationships of trust are harder to establish in this new environment. There was a significant increase in party support among Nebraska senators from 2006 to 2010, after term limits were imposed. There are also indirect effects of term limits on party polarization via three factors: new legislators who followed the lead of a strong, partisan governor; shifts in campaign financing that became much more partisan after term limits; and the increased involvement after term limits of the political parties in supporting candidates and trying to affect election outcomes. A lack of transparency and accountability that has developed in the Unicameral may be reversed by the retraction of term limits. If term limits cannot be retracted, then partisanship should be institutionalized in the Legislature.

Subject Area

Political science

Recommended Citation

Saferstein, Rhonda J, "Partisanship in a nonpartisan setting: The Nebraska state legislature" (2015). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3700357.