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Unicameral Legislature: Definition & Overview

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  • 1:16 Nebraska's Unicameral…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laurel Click

Laurel has taught social studies courses at the high school level and has a master's degree in history.

Learn about unicameral legislatures and discover which state in the Union uses this type of legislature. Examine some of the advantages and disadvantages of this type of lawmaking body, then check your understanding of this topic with a quiz.

Definition of Unicameral Legislature

During the Revolutionary time period, the United States government operated under the Articles of Confederation, which provided for a unicameral legislature. The word 'cameral' comes from the Latin camera and the Greek kameral, both meaning chamber. A unicameral legislature consists of only one chamber or legislative house.

Before the United States Constitution was written, the unicameral legislature was not effective enough to handle all of the nation's affairs. Once the Constitution was adopted, the United States moved to a bicameral legislature, a two-house Congress made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Bicameral legislatures are generally the structure used within U.S. state governments as well. But, did you know that not every state in the Union has a bicameral legislature?

The state of Nebraska is the one notable exception. Nebraska has a unicameral legislature, as do Washington D.C., and the U.S. territories of Guam and the Virgin Islands. It is also important to note that, within the states, local government legislatures consisting of counties, cities, or other political subdivisions are typically unicameral with limited lawmaking power.

Nebraska's Unicameral Legislature

Let's take a closer look at Nebraska's unique unicameral legislature. At 49 members, Nebraska has the smallest state legislature in the United States. Nebraskans refer to its legislature as the 'Unicameral,' or 'Unicam' for short. Its representatives are referred to as senators, and they serve four-year terms. Half of the legislative seats are up for election every second year; this means that half of the senators are up for reelection during the same time as the general election for the U.S. president. The other half of the senators are up for reelection during the same time other state elections are held.

If you ever listen to the news or read the newspaper, you are bound to hear about political infighting, or rivalry, taking place between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. You won't hear as much about that in Nebraska, since the state legislature is entirely nonpartisan—representatives have no official political party affiliation.

In Nebraska, a candidate's political party is not listed on the ballot during primary elections. The two candidates with the most votes in the primary election run against each other and are voted on in the general election. This is different from other states, where each party selects a winner in the primary, and the winners of each party face each other in the general election. While the Nebraska unicameral is officially nonpartisan, alliances do sometimes form along political party lines.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Unicameral Legislature

So, why aren't there more states with unicameral legislatures? Actually, several states have considered adopting a unicameral legislature as states look for ways to end gridlock (legislative holdup) or cut expenses in their state governments. Puerto Rico is currently considering the switch from a bicameral to a unicameral legislature.

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