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Lawmakers hold public hearing on competing voter ID bills

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers held a public hearing Wednesday on competing bills to address ways to enact a voter ID requirement approved by voters last November.

Nebraska became the 36th state to require a form of identification to vote with the successful referendum initiative, which was conducted in the wake of false allegations of widespread election fraud in the 2020 presidential election. In January, Ohio enacted a strict voter photo ID law that takes effect this year.

While voters approved the proposal to show photo identification at the polls, it's up to the Legislature to define what forms of ID will suffice to meet that requirement.

The Legislature's committee that deals with government affairs heard a bill by Omaha Sen. Jen Day that would offer a wide range of identification that would satisfy the photo ID requirement, from driver's licenses, state IDs and passports to student and government employment IDs. Day's bill also would allow residents to register to vote online, offer transportation for the elderly and disabled to obtain photo IDs and provide a public awareness campaign regarding the new voter identification requirements.

“The last thing we need is voter confusion on Election Day,” Day said.

Two bills introduced by state Sen. Steve Erdman, of Bayard, go beyond the question of requiring photo identification to vote. While one measure would cancel some fees to acquire IDs, another also would largely eliminate voting by mail except for registered military members and nursing home and assisted-living residents.

One of his bills also would require all ballots to be counted on Election Day at individual polling places, instead of at central county election commission offices. It also proposes making primary and general election days state holidays to get more people to the polls, but Erdman testified Wednesday that he's considering dumping that proposal as “it may be too cost prohibitive.”

Three state election officials testified against Erdman's bills, including the election commissioner of Douglas County, the state's most populous with nearly 600,000 people. Eliminating most mail-in elections and requiring precinct-by-precinct ballot counts would be too costly and disenfranchise too many voters, Douglas County Election Commission Brian Kruse said. Some sparsely populated counties, he said, have no public buildings available to serve the most rural precincts or no polling places that are accessible to the disabled.

“Voters have become acclimated to by-mail elections,” Kruse said. “It would cost $1 million annually in Douglas County alone” to drop voting by mail.

Seward County Election Commissioner Sherry Schweitzer said Erdman's proposal would violate federal election law that mandates allowing U.S. citizens overseas to vote by absentee ballot. It also doesn't make allowances for voting by mail for students away at college, the homebound or those in hospitals, she said.

Under Erdman's plan, “if the election was held yesterday, most senators on this committee would not have been able to vote,” Schweitzer said. “We know that early voting is safe and secure.”

The single-day precinct vote counting proposed by Erdman would cost Hall County an additional $200,000 per election, Election Commissioner Tracy Overstreet said. Further, “it's physically impossible to do,” she said. “It ignores the counting of provisional ballots, which can't be done on Election Day.”

Counting ballots within individual precincts would require most counties to find new polling places, Overstreet said, because many places now used — like churches and schools — can't give up their facilities for the several days it would take to count all votes.

The vast majority of those who testified in favor of Erdman's bills cited what they believed to be rampant election fraud in both national and Nebraska elections — including ballot and voting machine tampering. Nebraska has no history of widespread voter fraud.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, said before testimony in the hearing began that the committee would likely take parts from the various bills and craft its own to advance to the full Legislature.

Voter ID measures have been approved in a number of Republican-controlled states nationwide. But Nebraska Republicans’ previous efforts to do so in the officially nonpartisan Legislature were unable to overcome opponents who said such voter ID laws are meant to discourage voter turnout by minorities and others who are less likely to have appropriate identification and tend to vote for Democrats.

When efforts in the Legislature failed in 2021, a petition effort — bankrolled by then-Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ mother — was launched to get the measure on last November’s ballot.