This rebel lawmaker preserved Nebraska’s unique electoral system

Ernie Chambers, Omaha's self-proclaimed 'defender of the downtrodden,' has dedicated his career to unpopular progressive issues.

Photograph by Walker Pickering, National Geographic
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State Senator Ernie Chambers at the Nebraska State Capitol.

Photograph by Walker Pickering, National Geographic

This rebel lawmaker preserved Nebraska’s unique electoral system

Ernie Chambers, Omaha's self-proclaimed 'defender of the downtrodden,' has dedicated his career to unpopular progressive issues.

On this year's electoral map, a lonely blue island stands out among a sea of red in the middle of the country: the Omaha metropolitan region. In 48 states, this would not affect the state’s electoral voters, who are supposed to back the same candidate in a winner-takes-all system. But since 1992, Nebraska has adopted a different method: Two of its five electoral votes are distributed to the overall winner of the state’s popular vote, and the remaining three go to the winner in each of the state’s three congressional districts. So this year, despite nearly 60 percent of the state supporting Donald Trump, one of Nebraska’s electoral votes—that of the Second Congressional District—will go to Joe Biden.

“When the conditions are right, Nebraska becomes a state that candidates have to pay attention to,” says Megan Hunt, a state legislator from Omaha. “And that gives a lot of hope and motivation to people in Nebraska who want to operate on the side of justice and independence, and not just give away our electoral power along party lines.”

Halfway across the country, the same situation unfolded in reverse. An electoral vote in central and northern Maine went for President Trump, who visited there in late October, while the rest of the state went blue. Only Nebraska and Maine don't use winner-take-all counts.

Republicans in Nebraska's legislature have been trying for decades to change the way its state distributes electoral votes, but standing in their way has been Ernie Chambers, the state’s longest serving and only Independent legislator. In 2016, the then-79-year-old Chambers nearly single-handedly stopped a bill that would have turned the state’s electorate back into a winner-takes-all system. (Here’s why the Electoral College exists—and how it could be reformed.)

Chambers eschews labels, but he is by all accounts a progressive in a conservative state, and a non-religious Black man in a senate dominated by white Christians. Over the course of his 46-year career, he has developed a reputation as a stubborn yet effective dissident, and, according to a number of current and former state senators, significantly reshaped the state’s legislative body.

'Defender of the downtrodden'

In 1971, when Chambers first became state senator for Nebraska’s 11th Legislative District in northern Omaha, he did not swear an oath. (He doesn’t believe in a higher power, despite being the son of a minister.) Instead, he issued an affirmation. “That meant that anybody, regardless of race, creed, color, sexual orientation, or any other thing, if that person had a situation that fell within the province of what I should do as a legislator, I would help that person,” Chambers said.

Chambers, who worked as a barber before becoming a state lawmaker, describes himself in his official senate biography as a “Defender of the Downtrodden.” He protested racial inequalities as a teenager and continued to do so through college, the U.S. Army, and law school. He became well-known as an anti-establishment leader representing the city’s young, Black community in their dealings with the police and local government. “If people were having problems with the police, the housing authorities… they’d come to me, and I’d go and confront the white person in power who was doing it,” Chambers said.

Chambers was encouraged to run for state senate by his community—“I was pretty much doing the job anyway,” he says—and after he was elected in 1970, he tried to advocate for people he considered “on the margins.” One of his chief causes is the abolition of the death penalty, which he believes undermines basic human dignity. “As long as I’m in the legislature, I’m going to work for the abolition of the death penalty in Nebraska,” he said in 1976. Nearly 40 years later, in 2015, he succeeded, and even secured the supermajority of votes needed to overcome a veto from then-governor Pete Ricketts. (His bill was repealed in a referendum a year later.)

Chambers has a history of drafting unpopular bills for progressive causes. Since the 1980s, he has been trying to get college athletes recognized as state employees so they can be paid. Fifty years before the Supreme Court ruled to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, Chambers started pushing for laws to protect LGBTQ workers. He has also called for laws to address systemic racism, and pushed for radical police reform. Only this year, in the aftermath of nationwide race-based protests, did a bill pass in Nebraska cracking down on racial profiling and requiring implicit bias training for all police officers.

Chambers seems to revel in defiance of the status quo. He’s been the only Black man in the state senate for the majority of his career, and he wears jeans and a baggy sweatshirt to work every day in contrast with his colleagues’ suits and ties. He is so committed to dissidence that it creeps into his personal life. Patty Pansing Brooks, a colleague who he sometimes calls his “goddaughter,” said that they’ve become good friends in their six years working together. But Chambers often claims, even to Pansing Brooks’s face, that he doesn’t have any friends.

“He has a good heart,” she told me. “But he also says he doesn’t have a heart.”

The fight for the split electorate

In early 2016, Nebraska was on the verge of passing a law that would change its electoral college system to winner-takes-all. The move was largely seen to favor Republicans in the deeply red state. “Why would we want to be different from all the other 48 states?” asked Senator Robert Hilkemann recently, who helped lead the effort to pass the bill that year. In an interview with National Geographic, Hilkemann said that he would understand if every state had a system like Nebraska’s, but it strikes him as wrong that his state is so different from everyone else. “For me, it was more the principle of the thing,” he said.

Why the Electoral College exists When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, delegates argued for months over how a new government should run, who should lead it, and how to hold elections. Out of it came a voting system that remains controversial today.

Chambers opposed the bill. “I said, ‘You’re not going to take away that one little bit of impact that the people in this district may have on selecting the president.’” So he called upon a skill he had perfected over decades in the legislature, something one of his colleagues calls “the Chambers Treatment.” He started filibustering.

Hilkemann initially had enough votes, 34, to end the filibuster, but Chambers went ahead anyway, stretching his arguments out for hours, insulting and riling up his opponents. Hilkemann remembers sitting through long lectures from Chambers about “how awful we all are.”

Chambers’s stamina is almost legendary in the state legislature. He never sits down during senate sessions, and he brags that he never has to use the bathroom. “He’s very well prepared, and he knows how to work the system,” Hilkemann said. “And he must have a bladder that I can’t believe.”

Still, the bill made it to a final hearing, and on April 12, when the last arguments were to be made, Hilkemann got up early to make sure everything was in shape for the vote. With Chambers pushing against the bill, even a small slip-up could mean another delay. “I thought we were going to get it,” Hilkemann said. But that morning, two of his supporters decided to flip for reasons Hilkemann still doesn’t understand. The bill failed by one vote.

Chambers was ecstatic. He often breaks into song as he filibusters, blowing his vocal chords out by the end of the day, and he remembers singing as he kept Nebraska’s electoral votes split. “I thought that a day would come when this is going to be far more significant than anybody can realize right now,” he said.

'Time is on my side'

In 2000, Nebraska imposed term limits of two consecutive four-year terms on legislators, a move made primarily, many senators concur, to kick Chambers out for a little while. Chambers served from 1971 to 2008, took four years off, and was elected again in 2012. His first words after returning to the senate floor were, “As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted by term limits…”

But now, with his term ending in January, the future is less certain for the 83-year-old Chambers. Other senators are preparing for a legislature without him. In August, Pansing Brooks gave a long farewell address to him in front of the full senate, which was met with an ovation. During the speech, Chambers remained in his office in the basement of the building, unwilling to accept the acknowledgement.

Many senators say they worry the quality of the legislature will decline without Chambers’s watchful eye and iron-clad principles. Others, like Hilkemann, answer more pragmatically when asked whether his absence will benefit or hurt the legislative body: “Well, it depends,” he said, laughing. “It depends on whether I want a particular bill or if I don’t want a particular bill.”

Chambers is still commuting from Omaha to his office in Lincoln nearly every day, even when the legislature is not in session. He writes little poems on his typewriter (he doesn’t own a computer) that other senators call “Erniegrams.” In conversation, he quotes a variety of sources at length, from Robert Frost to Popeye. He revels in the fact that his act of disobedience in 2016 still protects some of those people he thinks are “downtrodden.” Sure, one electoral vote isn’t much, Chambers says, but he doesn’t expect sweeping change. He does all he can and waits for others to catch up with him, if they ever do. (Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have joined a movement to use the popular vote in future elections, but they need more states to sign on.)

Thinking of this, Chambers started singing an old Rolling Stones song, his voice cracking with energy. "Time is on my side," he crooned. "Yes it is."