Pari-mutuel vs. Unicameral. Which is Which?

Opening day at Nebraska’s first unicameral legislative session, January 5, 1937. HN RG2183-1937-105-1.

In the 1934 election, Nebraskans voted on two measures with funny-sounding names: a unicameral legislature and pari-mutuel betting. Both measures passed. It has long been rumored that gambling backers worried that voters might be confused by the two strange words. And since a measure to repeal statewide prohibition was also on the ballot, they told people just to vote yes on everything. Thus, Nebraska got a one-house legislature because the people wanted booze and horse racing.

It’s a good story, but Thomas Irvin takes issue with it in “The Political and Journalistic Battles to Create Nebraska’s Unicameral Legislature,” in the Spring 2011 issue of Nebraska History Magazine. Looking at the election statistics for each of the ballot measures and concluded that this explanation is “likely overstated.” He points out that the the Unicameral measure gained a considerably higher percentage of the vote than either of the other ballot measures, and argues that “voters of Nebraska went to the polls very well informed, thanks to an aggressive campaign from both sides.”

In taking a new look at the oft-told story of the 1934 unicameral campaign, Thomas also corrects the common impression that U.S. Senator George Norris almost single-handedly persuaded Nebraskans to support the bill. Norris was “the measure’s greatest advocate and most visible backer,” Thomas writes, but he shows that Norris didn’t act alone.

U.S. Sen. George Norris and University of Nebraska Political Science Department chair John Senning were allies in the unicameral campaign. HN RG3298-30-71.

For example, University of Nebraska Political Science Department chair John Senning was part of a citizens’ committee that worked out the details of how the unicameral system would actually operate. Senning jeopardized his career by doing so. Thomas writes,

The Board of Regents of the University was upset that one of their department heads had become embroiled in a controversial issue, and on election night his [Senning’s] wife Elizabeth found him at the radio, “listening to election returns in order to see if I still have a job at the University come morning.”

Thomas also reveals that with the exception of the Lincoln Star, the Hastings Daily Tribune, and a half-dozen weeklies, every newspaper in the state opposed the unicameral legislature.

Nevertheless, the measure passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote. The new law took effect with the 1937 legislative session.

—David Bristow, Editor, Nebraska History Magazine

Read Thomas Irwin’s complete article, “The Political and Journalistic Battles to Create Nebraska’s Unicameral Legislature” (PDF)

Newspaper clipping that reads, " Wednesday, September 26, 1934. THE RISK IS TOO GREAT. The timely announcement comes of the organization of a Nebraska Representative Government Defense organization to support the American legislative system against the attack of a proposed one house legislature with a small membership. Support of volunteer workers in all parts of Nebraska is called for to insure that roller coaster lawmaking will not be authorized by default."

From a folder of John Senning’s newspaper clippings. Opponents warned that a one-house legislature would be too hasty in passing new legislation. HN RG2006AM-18-69).

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

Sewing the Flag

Sewing the Flag

Buffalo Bill’s Big House

Buffalo Bill’s Big House

Marker Monday: The Seedling Mile

Marker Monday: The Seedling Mile

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

History Nebraska Education

Learn more about the educational programs provided at our museums, sites, and online.

History Nebraska Programs

Learn more about the programs associated with History Nebraska.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast!

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.