Unicam Focus

Return Lesson Index

Return Lesson Index

Lesson 5: Legislators and Representation - Getting Elected
The purpose of Lesson 5 is to introduce students to the election process in Nebraska. The lesson discusses the decision that a would-be candidate must make before running for election. The lesson also discusses the specific steps in the election process in Nebraska.
Deciding to Run

Before a citizen becomes a member of the Nebraska Legislature, he or she must make the important decision to run for election to the Legislature. A citizen must be elected by a majority of voters in the legislative district in order to become a member of the Unicameral.

Why would someone decide to run or not to run for a state legislative seat? There are a number of factors - both positive and negative - that could affect an individual's decision to run for office.

First, trying to win a legislative office requires a lot of time. Candidates must visit with district residents and learn about legislative issues. Candidates may have to spend time away from their jobs and families as they campaign for office. Second, there are also financial costs, including those of printed materials such as posters, buttons, mailings, travel expenses, campaign events and campaign staff.

Candidates must also evaluate their chances in the election. In other words, could he or she win the election? An incumbent legislator, one who is currently serving in the seat for which he or she would run, often has a greater chance of winning election. Some researchers think that this may be because they have greater name recognition, or are more familiar to the citizens of the district. A challenger - someone who runs for a seat that he or she does not hold - may have a harder time making himself or herself known to district residents.

Would-be candidates must also consider the costs of winning an election. What impact might being a legislator have on their careers or their relationships with family and friends? Recall that the legislative session lasts for 90 or 60 legislative days, which means that many legislators - especially those who live far away from the State Capitol - must be far away from their spouses, children or parents for many months. Legislators may also have to take leaves of absence from work during the legislative session.

Of course, there are many benefits to a legislative career as well. During both the campaign process and their legislative term of office, legislative candidates get to meet citizens from across the state. They also get a first-hand education on how government works and can share their opinions about policy issues in a public forum. Most importantly, legislators get to serve the citizens of the state of Nebraska. This may include introducing legislation that will help citizens in some specific way.


Interviewees: Judge Paul Korslund, Former Sen. Dennis Byars

"The Candidates" explores the decision-making process through which citizens decide to become state legislative candidates, including an exploration of the costs and benefits of campaigning and serving in the Legislature.

Critical Thinking Exercise

  • Do you hold any leadership positions in clubs or organizations in your school or community? If so, why did you decide to run for that position?
  • Are the costs and benefits of serving as a leader in the organization what you expected?
  • If you chose not to run for a leadership position, why not?
The Election Process

Once an individual has decided to become a legislative candidate, his or her next step is to try to win election. In order to become a legislative participant in the policy process and a representative of the citizens of his or her district, a candidate must be chosen by the voters in the district. This process can be a hard one, as candidates must prove two things to the voters of their district. First, candidates must show to the voters that they can effectively represent the district's interests. Second, they must also prove that they can effectively represent the interests of the state of Nebraska as a whole. Candidates begin election campaigns to get messages like these across to voters.

An election campaign usually begins when a candidate announces that he or she will run for a seat in the Legislature. A candidate may then choose a campaign consultant who helps the candidate create a strategy to win the election. Candidates must also raise campaign contributions - money donated by citizens or organizations directly to an election campaign to help pay for campaign costs. As mentioned above, these costs can include salaries for campaign staff, bumper stickers and buttons, campaign events and television or radio advertisements. Campaigns must follow a set of rules, or regulations, that set how much individuals and groups can contribute to a state legislative campaign. The Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, a state agency, sets these rules and monitors contributions.

One of the most important aspects of any election campaign is connecting with voters. Candidates usually spend a great deal of time meeting with citizens from their district, listening to their concerns and explaining how they could help solve community problems. There are usually a number of opportunities for citizens to meet state and local candidates. Citizens may attend a rally for a candidate or a campaign fundraiser, or they may interact with candidates at local organization meetings. Many candidates also go door-to-door through neighborhoods, introducing themselves to local residents. These meetings give citizens a chance to meet candidates and to learn more them and their and policy goals.

There are two major elections within any state legislative election campaign. The first election - the primary election - gives voters a chance to narrow down a list of candidates to the two that they like the best. Primary elections in Nebraska take place on the first Tuesday after the second Monday in May of election years. In the general election, which takes place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of election years, citizens decide which of these two candidates they prefer.

Critical Thinking Exercise

  • What characteristics should a person have in order to serve as a legislator? On a sheet of paper, make a list of a few of these characteristics.
  • What characteristics does a person need in order to be elected to the Legislature? On the same sheet of paper, make a list of these characteristics.
  • Compare the two lists. Did you write down the same characteristics on each list? Why or why not?
What Can I Do?
If you are participating in UniCAM Focus during an election year, take this opportunity to learn about the candidates from your neighborhood. Many towns have city council elections and some have elections for neighborhood associations. Call your city hall or local county election commission and find out what elections are taking place in your community.