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Outgoing Nebraska State Senator On Electoral College

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For a moment last week, it looked like one congressional district in Nebraska might have played a pivotal role in Joe Biden's path to the White House. See, Nebraska is one of only two states that does not award its electoral votes winner-take-all. This year, the district around Omaha went blue. So in cherry-red Nebraska, one electoral vote will go to Biden. State Republicans have tried to scrap this system, and Ernie Chambers has been one of the key legislators standing in their way. He is a Nebraska state senator, first elected in 1970, and he's leaving his seat in January, forced out by term limits. Today I called up Senator Chambers and asked why that one electoral vote matters.

ERNIE CHAMBERS: Every person who casts a ballot should have the assurance that that vote is going to count. If this were a state which did not have that split-vote system, then anybody who is not a Republican would write a vote, but it's pro forma. It would mean nothing. Everything would go to the Republican candidate. I've been able, whenever it came up during my time here, to stop them from doing away with that split-vote system. So as of the date that I leave, people in the 2nd District can still give that one electoral vote to whoever wins this district.

SHAPIRO: It's clear why Republicans would like to have a winner-take-all system 'cause that would consistently give them one more electoral vote than they get in years like this one. Tell us what happened in 2016 when you pretty much singlehandedly blocked a Republican effort to change it to winner-take-all.

CHAMBERS: Well, for most of my tenure, I've been the only Black person in the Legislature. That year, a second one had come. But I'm the one who had to be the garbage man of the session. Bad legislation of every variety I would fight by means of using the rules to engage in what I call extended debate. They called it filibuster. Because I never got tired and I would hold their feet to the fire, on this occasion, they were instructed to go to the mat. So that's where I took them, and that was what I've done throughout my career.

SHAPIRO: The first Democrat to win the electoral vote from the Omaha area was Barack Obama in 2008. What is the significance of Biden winning it back again after Republicans carrying it the last couple elections?

CHAMBERS: I guess it might be like if they say, get one taste of sweet nectar, and you'll never get over it. Maybe the people in the 2nd District liked the feeling they got from realizing that their vote could mean something. So a lot of people turned out to vote who may not have ordinarily done it. So their vote actually had even a minuscule influence on electing the next president.

SHAPIRO: Would you like to see every state adopt a system like Nebraska's, or would you like to see the abolition of the Electoral College altogether?

CHAMBERS: I'd like to see an abolition because the Constitution begins with that preamble - we the people of the United States. Well, the fact is we the people do not elect the president, and it's proved by the fact that the one who wins the popular vote can still lose the presidency.

SHAPIRO: If the Electoral College were abolished, would you risk getting into a litigation nightmare in a race that is actually 50/50, where instead of just seeing lawsuits and recounts in swing states or swing districts, you could potentially see them in every county in America?

CHAMBERS: I know that is a possibility, but it's not a likelihood. If there is - and there is litigation - let it be based on determining whether the vote of the people should prevail.

SHAPIRO: After all the years you've spent in the Nebraska state Senate, you're going to be leaving in January. What are you thinking about the next chapter for you?

CHAMBERS: My brother gave me a little slogan, also. Life is hard by the yard but a cinch by the inch. I can only live in this instant. So despite all of the setbacks I've had, I've never been downhearted, never been discouraged, because as long as I have my mind, know who I am, what I want to try to do, nothing can defeat me.

SHAPIRO: Well, Nebraska state Senator Ernie Chambers, thank you for spending these few minutes with us.

CHAMBERS: And thank you for the time, and keep carrying on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.