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Could Nebraska lawmakers seek winner-take-all elections in a special session to address taxes?

Nebraska lawmakers are set to address property tax relief next month in a special session being sought by Gov. Jim Pillen. But the Republican also has signaled his hope that the session could be used to take Nebraska back to a winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes ahead of this year’s tight presidential election.

There’s a catch to Pillen’s call for changing the system of electoral votes: He’ll need enough lawmakers to back it.

Pillen’s letter to Speaker of the Legislature Sen. John Arch seeking a special session was sent Tuesday. It follows a swarm of townhall gatherings he has held around the state in recent weeks while seeking to rally support for a legislative answer to the state’s soaring property taxes.

In recent years, lawmakers have passed several measures to ease the property tax burden, including income tax credits to partially offset property taxes. But they failed to pass Pillen’s proposal earlier this year that would have shifted that tax burden by increasing and expanding goods and services subject to the state’s 5.5% sales tax.

Pillen also said in the letter that he’s seeking “a signal that support exists” to take up the issue of changing Nebraska’s atypical system of splitting its five presidential electoral votes. His language indicates he lacks the 33 votes needed among Nebraska’s unique one-chamber legislature of 49 senators to overcome a sure filibuster on the proposal.

The issue comes at a critical time for the 2024 presidential contest. Former President Donald Trump could need every electoral vote he can get in his bid to defeat President Joe Biden in a rematch of the 2020 race. If Biden were to win the Rust Belt swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, an electoral vote from Nebraska would give him the 270 electoral votes he needs for victory — even if Trump wins all the other swing states.

Nebraska and Maine are the only states that split their electoral votes. In Nebraska, the three electoral votes tied to the state’s three congressional districts go to whichever candidate wins the popular vote in that district.

In 2008, Barack Obama became the first presidential contender to shave off the Nebraska electoral vote tied to the Omaha-centered 2nd Congressional District. It happened again in 2020 when Biden captured Nebraska’s 2nd District electoral vote. Trump handily won the rest of the state.

Given this year’s tight race, Nebraska’s unique system has caught the attention of high-profile Trump loyalists, including conservative activist Charlie Kirk. It was Kirk who publicly called on Pillen to back a winner-take-all system with only days left in this year’s legislative session to accomplish it.

Within hours of Kirk’s social media post, Pillen issued a news release urging lawmakers to make the change.

Kirk later held a rally in Omaha, drawing nearly 1,000 people and urging voters to put pressure on state lawmakers to change Nebraska’s system of awarding Electoral College votes.

While Republicans currently hold 33 seats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, some are unwilling to upend Nebraska’s more than 30-year system of splitting electoral votes. Among them is Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell, who switched parties from Democrat to Republican in April on the same day Pillen called for lawmakers to take Nebraska to a winner-take-all system.

McDonnell’s office has been deluged with calls since — mostly from people out of state — to support that change, his office said Wednesday. Despite the pressure, he doesn’t support a winner-take-all system for Nebraska.

To address the issue of winner-take-all in this special session, observers expect Pillen would need first to gauge whether he has the votes to pass it — and then include it in his still-awaited official proclamation outlining reasons for the special session.

Pillen’s office did not return messages Wednesday to answer questions about whether he’s putting pressure on specific lawmakers to support a winner-take-all measure. But he left no question in his letter to Arch on where he stands on Nebraska’s current system.

“I believe this practice is inconsistent with our constitutional founding, out of step with most of the rest of America, and signals disunity,” Pillen wrote.

The sudden emphasis on Nebraska’s Electoral College system shows how much sway Trump and his loyalists hold in the Republican Party, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor Ari Kohen, and how effective they are at exerting pressure on fellow Republicans to bolster Trump.

Kohen noted that Pillen, who began his term as governor last year, had not campaigned on or even publicly discussed the winner-take-all issue until Trump acolytes called for it.

“Now he’s putting it on the same level of urgency as his property tax package,” Kohen said. “If this was not a presidential election year, we would not be hearing about this issue.”

Margery A. Beck, The Associated Press