As a Caucasian septuagenarian, I have to admit that I have never felt disenfranchised, as I have gone to cast my ballot at the polling place in a nearby Lutheran Church in a neighborhood of $200,000 to $300,000 homes. So maybe I don’t understand the big push for voter IDs on a real and personal level.
I do understand the push from members of one political party who fear that the other party is somehow “cheating” by getting allegedly unqualified people to cast ballots. I lived in Illinois for several years and understand the jokes – sometimes more truth than humor – about dead people voting in Chicago and boxes of uncounted ballots turning up at the last minute.
But hey, this is Nebraska where the Republicans have a strong majority in the Legislature and always seem to win statewide elections. I can count the number of Democrats elected to statewide office in the last 25 years on two hands. Besides, folks around these parts are still “Nebraska Nice.”
So forgive me if I don’t understand why Senator John Murante of Gretna and Senator John Hilgers of Lincoln were pushing a proposed constitutional amendment to allow voters in 2018 to decide if a voter ID containing a photograph or digital image should be required prior to casting a ballot. I understand that Senators Murante and Hilgers are both Republicans.
Likewise, I understand why Senators Justin Wayne of Omaha and Adam Morfeld of Lincoln strongly opposed the measure. They are both Democrats. Wayne is a minority and Morfeld speaks out on social issues. I totally get that.
Murante admits that these sorts of election laws have been used in the past to suppress minority votes. But he contends that America currently has a crisis of voter confidence and needs to demonstrate that steps are being taken to ensure that only those who are qualified to vote are casting ballots. I contend that only you know your level of voter confidence.
Wayne offered a motion to kill the measure on first round of debate, saying it could cost $3.7 million to provide ID to some 160,000 people. That motion failed, but Murante also failed on a motion to invoke cloture and force a first-round vote. That motion, which required 33 affirmative votes, failed on a 26-17 vote and the measure fell off the agenda for the year.
In a related matter, lawmakers had passed a bill (LB75) sponsored by Wayne to immediately reinstate an individual’s voting rights upon completion of a felony sentence or probation. Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed the measure and said requiring convicted felons to wait two years before allowing them to vote provides an incentive to maintain a clean record and avoid subsequent convictions.
Conflicting studies have addressed a link between the restoration of voting privileges and reduced recidivism rates. Ricketts said the results don’t prove that it has helped. Wayne said they do and filed an unsuccessful motion to override the Ricketts’ veto.
Judiciary Committee chair Senator Laura Ebke of Crete, the only Libertarian in the Legislature, supported the override and said the revocation of the waiting period would demonstrate a commitment to criminal justice reform.
She said it’s good policy not to take civil rights away from people if they’ve paid their debt to society.
Senator Lydia Brasch, a Republican from Bancroft, said she felt the two-year waiting period allows felons to become reacquainted with their communities and the issues that they will be encountering on the ballot. She said two years is nothing because it goes by so quickly.
I’d like to see her sell that line to someone doing time. In fact, I’d like to see her convince an incarcerated person that they don’t understand ballot issues or know the community into which they will be released. She would likely be surprised.
As the father of two young men who are affected by the current law, I do understand this issue. Senators Wayne and Ebke are right and I’d like to see the governor and Senator Brasch talk civics with my sons sometime. They would be surprised.
The issue is dead for now, but unlike the voter identification proposal, felon-voting rights needs to come back next year and for however long it takes to correct this injustice.
J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.