Voter ID, partisanship divide Nebraska lawmakers


January 9th, 2017

 Nebraska lawmakers debate Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Nebraska lawmakers debate Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

A proposal to ask Nebraskans if they want to require a photo ID for people to vote faces a fight in the Legislature, while senators and others argue about partisanship.

Before this year, several proposals have been made for laws requiring photo id’s to vote. But they’ve never been passed by the Legislature. This year, Sen. John Murante is proposing to institute that requirement by a state constitutional amendment, which could be passed by a vote of the people, and doesn’t take legislative approval. “A constitutional amendment places before the voters of Nebraska a simple question: Should voters be required to show photo identification before voting. And if so, then the Legislature would be authorized and required to pass legislation in the years to come to make that happen and I believe the voters of Nebraska have a right to vote on this,” Murante said.

Murante said voter confidence in the election system is at an all-time low. He cited Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s challenge to Republican Donald Trump’s victory in Wisconsin. “Voters’ belief that their vote is being counted accurately, and that the election results actually reflect who the voters voted for is at an all-time low. Evidence of that was a candidate for president of the United States raised millions of dollars to conduct a recount in Wisconsin based on the rumor that the Russians hacked the election. After the election was recounted, it was a net difference of about 25 votes,” he said.

Sen. Adam Morfeld opposes Murante’s proposal to amend the constitution. “The purpose of the constitution is to enumerate rights and protect rights, particularly minority rights. My concern with putting in a specific provision that requires qualifications to exercise a certain right is very concerning to me, particularly when we have found in other states that those qualifications are discriminatory against certain classes of individuals,” Morfeld said.

Morfeld said those individuals include people who are low income, minority group members, or have disabilities. And he says it’s not just people who don’t have a driver’s license. He said it could be somebody with a driver’s license, but maybe not a current and up-to-date driver’s license.

“These are not anomalous or easy requirements for many people. They’re oftentimes requirements that disproportionately impact people who move around a lot, whether they be a young person or an older person who doesn’t have the ability to go to the DMV or do other things to update their ID, to get the current form of ID necessary under voter ID laws,” Morfeld said.

Murante said the Legislature can handle those kind of potential problems after voters approve his proposal. “What forms of identification qualify, how to ensure that not a single voter is disenfranchised, that will be contained in the legislation in years to come. That argument is fighting a battle for a piece of legislation that has not been introduced,” he said.

The public will get a chance to weigh in on the proposal at a yet-to-be- scheduled public hearing before the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, which Murante chairs.

Also on Friday, lawmakers engaged in a sometimes bitter debate that reflected the bruising battles for committee chairmanships and assignments earlier this week. Those internal elections among senators resulted in the number of chairmanships held by registered Democrats in the officially nonpartisan — but Republican-dominated — Legislature reduced from four to one. Sen. Mike Groene, a conservative Republican who replaced term-limited former Sen. Kate Sullivan, a Democrat, as Education Committee chair, said the developments reflected voters’ wishes. “Finally this body, as a whole, represents the mindset of the state,” Groene said. “Is that wrong? Seventy percent in my district voted for Trump. Statewide, it was 60-some. You look at our governor. Look at our speaker. When we have statewide votes, it follows a certain philosophy. This chamber should follow that majority philosophy. And it did with the chairman votes this year.”

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, a progressive Democrat, said senators should only carry that line of thinking so far. “We have to be able to represent our entire state. Yes, Sen. Groene’s right. He’s representing a good portion of the state by the number of people that voted a certain way,” Pansing Brooks said. “But that doesn’t mean that my constituents need to be silenced. It doesn’t mean that we have to have a slaughter of all the committee chairs and of all the committee people.”

Sen. Paul Schumacher, a registered Republican sometimes at odds with his party, said all the upset at the beginning of the session reminded him of a nature documentary he recently saw on television. “They were talking about the deer mating season. I think they call it ‘rut.’ And at the beginning of the mating season, the deer hoot and holler and kick up all kinds of dirt and knock their antlers and horns against the tree. Folks, we’re in rut. It’ll pass,” Schumacher said.

The outcome also drew criticism from Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb. Kleeb said previous committee chairs have been balanced and independent. But referring to Gov. Pete Ricketts campaign contributions, Kleeb said the Republican governor had “bought” the Legislature and handpicked chairs who will carry out his one-party, one-ideology platform.”

Asked for response, Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said “We are not going to respond to baseless partisan attacks.”

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