- Associated Press - Sunday, March 5, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Third-party political candidates could have an easier time getting on the Nebraska ballot thanks to a Libertarian state senator who is working to build her party.

Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete will present a bill this week that would create a new way for parties to maintain ballot access, allowing them to divert more resources into local races and fundraising.

If it passes, parties could automatically appear on the ballot if they have at least 10,000 registered members. The Libertarian Party of Nebraska cleared the threshold late last year, but the measure could also help the Nebraska Green Party and other groups.

“I think it’s a good thing for everybody,” said Ebke, a former Republican who registered as a Libertarian last year. “I believe the more parties we have and the more competition, the more it requires every party to be more thoughtful and hone its message. It forces them to examine what they believe.”

Current law lets parties onto the ballot if they received at least 5 percent of the total votes cast in either of the two previous statewide elections. They also can qualify if they fielded congressional candidates in all three of Nebraska’s districts and won at least 5 percent of the vote in each. Those that fall short have to gain access through a petition drive.

Nebraska’s Libertarian Party is still much smaller than the Republican and Democratic parties but has grown by 58 percent since the May 2016 primary. Nebraska has more than 11,700 registered Libertarians, up from 7,400 in the primary, according to the secretary of state’s office.

By contrast, the Nebraska has nearly 574,000 Republicans, 360,000 Democrats and 241,000 independents.

Libertarian activists said Nebraska’s current requirements force smaller parties to spend money on longshot candidates for state office just so they can maintain ballot access.

Libertarian Ben Backus paid a $975 filing fee to run for secretary of state in 2014, knowing he was going to lose to Republican incumbent John Gale.

“If we don’t have to spend $2,000 to run a token candidate in a statewide race, we can use that money to help people out in local races,” said Backus, who now serves on the Gering City Council. “Five hundred bucks can be a game-changer in a city council or a school board race.”

The bill could also save the state money by reducing the number of party petitions state officials have to verify, said Michael Knebel, a district coordinator for the Libertarian Party.

“Republicans should get behind it because it’s smaller government,” Knebel said. “Democrats should like it because they’re all about equal access and equal opportunity.”

The Nebraska Republican Party hasn’t yet decided whether it will take a position on Ebke’s bill, said Kenny Zoller, the party’s executive director.

Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman Jane Kleeb said her organization doesn’t plan to testify on it, but supports the concept. Kleeb said the bill could undermine GOP dominance in the state by offering voters an alternative.

“We believe all political parties should have a seat at the table,” she said. “More political parties engaged means we can start to take down the one-party ideology that controls Nebraska.”

Nebraska Libertarians launched a party-building campaign last year, drawing on Ebke’s experience as an elected official and former GOP activist.

Activists purchased campaign software to track and communicate with voters and set up phone banks and a volunteer network. They also shifted their focus from statewide elections to local races, where they have a better chance of winning and gaining experience and name recognition.

The party also benefited from the nasty 2016 presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, who both had high unfavorable ratings.

Other states saw similar jumps. Iowa’s Libertarian Party gained official party status last week after state officials confirmed that Gary Johnson, the party’s presidential nominee, had won 3.8 percent of the vote in that state.


Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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