By CINDY GONZALEZ
LINCOLN — An amendment to a proposed voter ID law, one that calls for mail-in voters to see a notary, was among points that drew fire during a public hearing Wednesday that stretched nearly six hours.
“It’s full of flaws and bureaucratic B.S.,” Jaden Perkins, a North Omaha community organizer with the Heartland Workers Center, said of Legislative Bill 535.
Perkins told the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee that his job involves getting people civically engaged and rallying the vote. Of the bill, he said: This does the opposite.
35 states have voter ID
While critics dominated the legislative hearing, a dozen or so people spoke in support of the proposed legislation introduced by State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar, who said that by passing the legislation Nebraska would join 35 other states with voter ID laws intended to protect election integrity.
“It is important that we ensure all eligible voters in Nebraska have access to the necessary identification,” said Slama. “It is also important that everyone who has a right to vote can vote.”
Many who testified in favor of the bill were government officials, including Secretary of State Bob Evnen, who said he believes that 98% of registered Nebraskans already have photo ID that would qualify under the bill. He and others said efforts are to be made to reach out to those that don’t.
“It is very important that we address this group,” Evnen said, and added that such a task should be “eminently manageable.”
LB 535 attempts to shape a voter ID law that comes in the wake of a constitutional amendment that voters passed in the November election, requiring Nebraskans to show photo ID before voting. It is now up to the Legislature to hammer out its details.
Frustration over late changes
Just before Wednesday’s hearing began, Slama presented the committee a revised bill, calling the earlier proposal a placeholder. Many who spoke expressed frustration, as they were unfamiliar with the changes, including that people seeking to mail in ballots see a notary who would sign their return ballot envelope after verifying the voter’s identity.
Slama said the notary provision was modeled after Missouri’s updated law.
Jane Raybould, a state senator from Lincoln, noted concern about not having an updated cost to implement the law.
According to an earlier estimate, a major expense would be a $1.9 million state-administered campaign to educate the public about voting changes. A legislative analysis said the state would not charge for an identification to be used for voting purposes, and estimated that 65,000 ID cards would be obtained in fiscal year 2023-24.
Raybould said she had questions, for instance, about the notary expense and overall execution of the proposed law in the 11 counties whose residents vote almost exclusively by mail.
To that, State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, chair of the committee, said he had discussed the point with Slama and was assured that voters would not bear the cost of the notarization process.
“This is a working document,” Slama said, adding that the state will cover costs.
‘A lot of morphing’
The committee took no action Wednesday on whether to advance the bill to debate by the full Legislature. Brewer said he expects the panel will take its time in creating a proposal that he envisions will not shut people out of their constitutional right to vote.
“It’s going to go through a lot of morphing,” he said.
Slama said her revised proposal allows people to use, as the required valid photo ID to vote, a Nebraska driver’s license or state ID, a U.S.-issued passport, tribal and military ID. The bill provides an exception for people with a religious objection to being photographed.
Hall County Election Commissioner Tracy Overstreet said she considered the bill a “strong start.”
She spoke of a 20-year-old constituent who has voted in four elections but was homebound with health issues. The young woman’s dad called Overstreet with concerns that his daughter would not be able to get the photo ID required to carry out the civic duty she took pride in.
Overstreet spoke as a supporter of the bill but advocated for flexibility — “so there is no voter left behind.”
Numerous speakers told the committee of barriers they foresee for a variety of Nebraskans: elderly voters whose driver’s licenses have expired; nursing homes residents who don’t have photo ID; low-income residents who don’t have transportation to get qualified ID; homeless who have no permanent address.
Lina Stover, executive director of the statewide Heartland Workers Center, which serves immigrants and underrepresented populations, said the cost to acquire documents to prove citizenship effectively would deny some U.S. citizens not born in Nebraska access to vote.
“Furthermore, negotiating language barriers at the polls, in the exchange of voter ID, and the need for a voter identification verification envelope, can result in apathy for the process that is already complex,” she said.
Suzan DeCamp, state president of AARP Nebraska, said she’s concerned about older voters whose driver’s licenses have expired. “We hope you consider exceptions,” she said.
Corie Sass, who works with assisted living and long-term care facilities, said many of the facilities’ residents lack current identification and don’t have access to validation documents called for in the bill.
”Our residents have lost a lot of their belongings,” she said. “Those things have been packed away.”
Representatives of the elderly asked lawmakers to consider accepting, for voting purposes, identification that nursing homes keep on file for their residents.
John Cartier, formerly the voting rights director at Civic Nebraska, questioned the reason for the law in the first place, saying it was propelled largely by financing from the family of former Gov. Pete Ricketts.
He said that while 35 states have voter ID laws, nine are more restrictive and require a photo to cast a ballot.
Cartier, who said he was speaking as a voter, also challenged that 2% of registered voters lack the qualifying ID, asserting that it is more like 10% to 12%.
“Even if it is just 2%, that’s still thousands of Nebraskans,” he said.
Edison McDonald of The Arc of Nebraska, which advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said among his concerns is the complex language laying out requirements to vote.
“That’s highly problematic,” he said.
Sharon Williamson, who identified herself as a registered voter, questioned the need to implement the law when she’s never heard of any widespread voter fraud.
“We should be doing everything possible to get more people to vote,” she said.