New Voter ID proposal heard; complaint aired about handling public hearings


March 2nd, 2017

The Nebraska Legislature during debate Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The fight over requiring identification in order to vote resumed in a public hearing Thursday, while a dispute arose over the ability of citizens to make their voices heard.

Lincoln, NE – There is a new wrinkle this year to the argument over requiring identification in order to vote. Instead of proposing a law, which requires legislative approval, Sen. John Murante is proposing a state constitutional amendment, which would leave it up to voters, if the Legislature agrees to put it on the ballot.

However, the arguments are similar to those over laws proposed in recent years. Murante told a public hearing of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee every vote cast illegally cancels out a legitimate vote, and said confidence in the election system was at an all-time low nationwide.

Murante cited a recent study in Ohio that concluded there were 385 noncitizens registered to vote in that state, and 83 actually voted.

“Are illegal votes happening in the state of Nebraska? Well, we won’t know until we look. And a voter ID protection is a very important first step in addressing that problem. It is the first step in restoring confidence to our election systems. It is the first step in living up to our responsibilities to our constituents. It is the first step in giving Nebraskans back their voice,” Murante said.

But Scott Kurz of the Anti-Defamation League of Omaha said the proposal itself creates a problem.

“An unsubstantiated argument for voter fraud drums up fear and division, and this in itself creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of a lack of confidence in our democracy,” Kurz said. He said the committee should not exacerbate that lack of confidence “without clear evidence to support that voter fraud is actually a rampant threat to our democracy.

Although this year’s proposal does not specify what kinds of ID would be acceptable, previous proposals have allowed for drivers licenses and other forms of ID. Supporter Jim Sazama said that shouldn’t be a problem. If someone has no driver’s license, “the cost of state ID card for five years is only 24 bucks,” he said, adding “Many Nebraska residents have other valid IDs such as military (or) federal which would be acceptable.”

But opponent Gwendolen Hines said cost could still be a burden.

“I know a voter who has no driver’s license and lives on Social Security in an assisted living facility. She gets $70 a month of spending money which has to cover snacks, haircuts, etc. So she wouldn’t be able to afford an ID,” Hines said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

In debate by the full Legislature Thursday, Sen. Sara Howard apologized to members of the public who showed up but were not allowed to testify at a hearing of the Health and Human Services Committee Wednesday. The hearing was on Gov. Pete Ricketts proposal to ease licensing and education requirements for groups including cosmetologists, nail technicians and audiologists.

“I am grateful that you came to speak with us,” Howard said. “And I am sorry that you had to stand because there were no more seats in the audience. And some of you stood for more than an hour to share your experience with us for just three minutes and we didn’t give you the opportunity.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Merv Riepe, who introduced the bill for the governor, defended the handling of the hearing.

“We had a roomful of people, and I respected that. When I concluded, I did apologize that we were not able to get more there to hear that, but we did go with the boards of these associations to have them testify first to get a collective opinion, if you will. And then we were getting down to individual experiences and comments from that. So I would argue that it was fair,” Riepe said.

Riepe pointed out he had issued a press release the Monday outlining procedures, and said Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer indicated he wanted committee chairs to end hearings by noon to prepare for a Statehood Day ceremony at 1:30, although some hearings did run later.

Debate also continued Thursday about “Choose Life” license plates. A bill authorizing them got first round approval Wednesday, but Sen. Ernie Chambers is delaying approval of a companion appropriations bill to pay for related expenses.

Sen. Lydia Brasch, who supports the plates, questioned why they should be controversial. “Since when did the word “life” become a slur, or a red flag? And putting it on a license plate could instill anger? It should not,” Brasch said.

The bill has drawn opposition, both from pro-choice groups and from some pro-life senators who say license plates should not become a forum for political controversies.

At least one senator indicated she was rethinking her position. Sen. Anna Wishart voted for the plates on first round, or General File. But Wishart said she would think some more before second round , or Select File.

“I originally voted for this legislation because I believe that we have already opened the door to specialty license plates created by the state. We as a body need to think hard about whether we want to move forward having these kind of plates created by the state when Nebraskans have other opportunities to display their deeply held beliefs on their vehicles,” Wishart said. “Hearing concerns from people in the district about this specific license plate has made me realize that I need to spend more time thinking about my vote moving forward on this legislation on Select File.”

The legislature adjourned for the day before reaching a vote on the appropriations bill.

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