Key state senators must resolve three questions on Nebraska voter ID bill 

State Sens. Julie Slama and Tom Brewer meeting this week with Speaker John Arch to hammer out potential compromise

By: - May 1, 2023 5:45 am
voter ID

State Sen. Julie Slama and other backers of a voter ID initiative submit signatures in July 2022. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Deadline negotiations this week over dueling plans to implement voter ID in Nebraska could decide whether the Legislature votes on a bill this session. County election officials who will carry out the plan have also weighed in, asking state lawmakers to keep things simple.

State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon explains his gun legislation, his personal priority, on Friday, March 3, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar, who helmed the voter ID initiative to passage in November, and State Sen. Tom Brewer, who chairs the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, are hunting for votes and common ground between competing amendments to replace Slama’s Legislative Bill 535.

Slama and Brewer are meeting Monday with Speaker John Arch and working with the Governor’s Office and Secretary of State’s Office on a way forward that follows federal law, election case law and the Nebraska Constitution, which voters amended last fall to require a photo ID to cast a ballot.

Slama and Brewer have made progress toward a compromise bill in recent days, people familiar with voter ID bill discussions say, but talks must still settle three questions:

  •  What forms of ID will the state accept as proof of a voter’s identification?
  •  How and when will the state verify the IDs of voters who use mail-in ballots?
  •  Should the state’s voter ID bill include additional checks of voter citizenship? 

Time is short

Arch, reached Friday, confirmed that he has told Slama and Brewer time is running short to get a voter ID bill done this session, especially with state budget debates expected to consume this week. Arch has told them he does not want a floor fight over voter ID when filibusters are taking time needed for other bills.

Slama declined to discuss negotiations late last week. She has said she is fighting for a more conservative version of voter ID, one that hews to the “photo ID” requirement in the state constitution. Brewer said he wants senators to narrow their focus to verifying that voters casting ballots are who they say they are.

State Sen. John Arch of La Vista, speaker of the Legislature. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“We know what we’ve got to do, and we’ve got to do it,” Brewer said. 

Local voting rights advocates, including Heidi Uhing of Civic Nebraska, said they are hopeful lawmakers’ final proposal will not disproportionately curb voting by vulnerable Nebraskans. A stricter bill could reduce voting by the elderly, rural residents, minorities and the poor, advocates have said. 

Residents in 11 largely rural Nebraska counties vote exclusively by mail.

Counties prefer simple approach

Both competing proposals would cover potential out-of-pocket costs to voters who need to secure a state-issued photo ID.

In a letter to the Government Committee, county election officials said some of the ideas being discussed would cost counties more money. One example: County officials argued that Slama’s amendment adding a second, ID-focused envelope to ballots by mail could make returned ballots too big to fit in the slots of some counties’ existing ballot boxes.  

A state misstep on voter ID could cost “tens of thousands of dollars to each of Nebraska’s small counties, hundreds of thousands of dollars for each of its large counties and in excess of $3 million statewide to implement,” the Nebraska Association of County Clerks, Register of Deeds and Election Commissioners wrote.

The group’s April 24 letter, which supported Brewer’s amendment, was backed by 92 of the state’s 93 county election officials. The one missing was Sarpy County Election Commissioner Emily Ethington, who is Slama’s sister.

“It’s important for the Legislature to keep it simple, for the sake of voters and for the sake of our election officials across the state,” Secretary of State Bob Evnen said. “Nebraskans didn’t vote for expensive bureaucracies or complicated processes.”

Secretary of State Robert Evnen
Secretary of State Robert Evnen (Courtesy of Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office)

Some members of the Government Committee prefer a compromise Slama can support because LB 535 is her bill. She could choose to withdraw LB 535 and push for a special session if she is unhappy with the committee amendment. Or she could force a late scramble to find a shell bill if the committee tries to pass something without her — a move that would likely spur a floor fight. 

Brewer, who represents north-central Nebraska, said his goal is to hammer out their differences and get something to the bill drafters this week. He hopes to provide compromise language to committee members by late this week, he said, after both sides count potential votes.

Deciding which IDs count

Slama’s amendment would allow voters to use military or state IDs, including valid driver’s licenses and current state ID cards. 

Brewer’s amendment would accept additional photo IDs, including those issued by colleges, universities and elder care facilities. It would let people use expired IDs, too, if the photos and names match. 

Some GOP lawmakers in other states have pressed to keep student IDs from being used as part of a multi-state effort to reduce voting by college students and younger people, who vote more often for Democrats than for Republicans. 

Other states have included nursing home IDs as a way to balance things out, because older voters tend to vote more conservatively.

State Capitol hallway just outside the legislative floor. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

How and when to check IDs

Slama’s amendment would require a witness — a registered Nebraska voter — to verify a voter’s ID by signing a new version of the early ballot envelope. It would require witnesses to vouch that they saw the voter’s photo ID and it matched. This would replace an earlier plan to require a notary public to confirm a person’s ID. 

In their letter to lawmakers, county election officials said they would need to hire more election staff to check witnesses’ voter registrations. They worried about whether Nebraskans living or working out of state, including military personnel overseas, might have difficulty finding a registered Nebraska voter as a witness. They also argued the process would take longer and might risk leaving voters less time to fix ballot mistakes.

Under Slama’s proposal, a person’s ID would not be verified until a voter returns a ballot. Many voters wait until Election Day to return early ballots by mail. Civic Nebraska’s Uhing said this timeline could lead to more ballots being tossed out.

Brewer’s amendment would let people, when they request a ballot, write down the number from their own driver’s license or state ID. When county election officials receive a request, they would confirm a voter’s ID before mailing a ballot. Alternatively, voters could send in a photocopy of an allowed ID.

Slama has argued that letting people write down their own driver’s license or state ID numbers would violate the constitutional requirement that voters show a photo ID to vote. Brewer’s amendment would leave voters more time to fix any mistakes, including transposed ID numbers.

Slama told the Omaha World-Herald last month that Brewer’s amendment has “exceptions you can drive a Mack truck through.”

Citizenship checks

An early voting drop box outside the Lancaster County Election Commission in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Slama’s amendment calls for an additional layer of verification of a voter’s citizenship by the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office. State election officials and voting rights advocates have described this as duplicative since Nebraska checks a person’s citizenship when they register to vote. 

Slama has argued that voters should know that nobody is voting who isn’t allowed, while Brewer has argued that you have to be a citizen to register to vote, and any push to add additional layers of checks on citizenship should be kept separate from the voter ID bill, people familiar with the discussions said.

A post-election audit of Nebraska’s 2022 election found no significant instances of fraud.

Uhing sounded hopeful that a compromise would be reached but said the committee needs to get something going. They’re losing valuable time to educate the public on how to navigate the proposal they coalesce around.  

“I think that the committee has done its work,” she said. “They’ve worked on this for months. They know what’s going to make a good voter ID bill and what won’t.”


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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.