State Sen. Julie Slama and other backers of a voter ID initiative submit signatures in July 2022. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — After a rare do-over Thursday, members of the Legislature’s Government and Military Affairs Committee again endorsed an approach to voter ID in Nebraska that supporters called “focused” and an opponent called an “abomination.”
State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar, who sponsored a competing proposal, pressed to have the committee vote again Thursday, challenging the original committee vote. Slama argued that Wednesday’s vote during an executive session risked violating the constitutional separation of powers and legislative rules, because a representative of the Secretary of State’s Office attended.
Once again, the committee adopted an amendment by State Sen. Tom Brewer, committee chairman, spelling out rules about providing photo identification while voting, as now required in the Nebraska Constitution. The amendment includes letting voters write down their state-approved ID number on the form requesting an early voting ballot and having election officials confirm the IDs electronically.
“I think it was a pretty clear voice from the committee on how they saw things,” Brewer said of AM 1748. “Comparing the two, there was one that was a much better option than the other.”
One vote shifted
On Wednesday, the committee voted for Brewer’s amendment, 6-0. Thursday’s vote was 7-1, after State Sen. Megan Hunt’s vote was added. State Sen. Rita Sanders of Bellevue made a different choice Thursday, saying the committee should have sought more input from people who preferred Slama’s approach. Sanders later joined the committee in voting to send the bill to the floor, 8-0.
Slama doesn’t serve on the committee, but she introduced voter ID legislation this year. She also led the ballot initiative effort last year to place voter ID on the November ballot. That initiative was funded primarily by the family of U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb.
“On this bill, it felt like we heard a lot, but we heard it from one side,” Sanders said of AM 1802. “I talked with Julie, and I think we should have heard more.”
Slama said she will do whatever it takes to defeat her own bill, Legislative Bill 535, now that the committee has endorsed replacing her plan with Brewer’s. She has called his amendment “weak,” “unconstitutional” and “not conservative enough.”
Slama’s goal is to pass her version of voter ID, even if that requires a special session.
“The people who hate voter ID, who have fought against voter ID from the beginning, are now in control … and trying to undermine voter ID in Nebraska with a fraud-friendly bill,” she said.
Added citizenship checks
Slama said she wanted to give the committee another chance to adopt a “conservative version of voter ID.” She shared a document raising questions about whether the Brewer amendment follows the constitutional requirement for checking a photo ID.
Slama’s proposal also would add new layers of citizenship checks on top of how the state checks citizenship when someone registers to vote. It would also require voters to get a notary’s signature when they return a ballot by mail, or get a witness to vouch that they had seen the ID. Her measure would create a criminal penalty if the witness was found to be lying.
One concern committee members raised Wednesday about Slama’s approach was the higher cost to taxpayers compared with Brewer’s approach. Slama proposed some changes Thursday to address the cost, but a committee staffer said the amendment was still projected to cost more than $20 million (down from $23.6 million), compared with $1.8 million for Brewer’s amendment. Slama disagreed with both estimates on her proposal.
‘A narrower focus’
Brewer had urged the committee to keep broader proposals to reform Nebraska elections out of the voter ID bill and hew instead to the “mission” of deciding how the state will check IDs and how to design the ID checks in ways that follow state and federal law and election case law.
A lawyer working for the committee said Thursday that the Brewer amendment follows the law and court precedent but expressed concerns about the Slama amendment.
Slama said her proposal had been undermined at all turns with lies, secret meetings and direct attacks. She again blamed Secretary of State Bob Evnen, whom she described as “lazy.”
Evnen this week defended his office’s work and said the choice is the Legislature’s alone on deciding how to implement voter ID. His office’s audit of Nebraska’s 2022 election found no instances of fraud.
Brewer’s amendment was backed by 92 of 93 county election officials. The lone exception: Sarpy County Election Commissioner Emily Ethington, Slama’s sister.
Reached Thursday evening, Evnen, who has supported voter ID, said the committee amendment was a “serviceable and lawful approach to voter ID that Nebraskans can support.”
He said adopting a bill this session would make it much more likely for the state to be able to implement voter ID in time for the 2024 presidential election.
“Name-calling, personal attacks and false accusations don’t help the process,” he said.
‘Every Who’s Who in the Zoo’
Brewer defended his committee’s work and its decision to stop pursuing an amendment Slama could support. He said her compromise amendment kept changing, including a new version filed Thursday that removed the requirement that localities plan for how they’d provide IDs.
“We just kept trying to find that magical place where we’re able to do what we were directed to do by the people and still meet the needs of the introducer,” he said. “And that was a process.”
He said he and Slama met with “every Who’s Who in the Zoo,” the secretary of state, the attorney general, the governor’s chief of staff and Speaker of the Legislature John Arch. They discussed a dozen versions of the bill over 100 days, Brewer said.
“It wasn’t for lack of effort, and it wasn’t because we didn’t want to have that bill become the law,” he said. “There’s a point where you run out of time.”
Brewer said he sought input at Wednesday’s hearing from the Secretary of State’s Office because he wanted the committee to hear from the officials the bill would impact.
“I said I would agree to re-do the exec, because I wanted it to be a vote that didn’t have any controversy as to how things were done,” he said. “I agreed to that.”
Floor debate on LB 535 is expected to start next week. Slama has filed an amendment that may give her a chance to regain control of the bill.
She also filed an amendment on LB 514. Gutting that bill and amending Brewer’s proposal into it is the committee’s backup plan if Slama succeeds at killing LB 535. But Slama’s amendment on LB 514 sits behind one from State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, a committee member who supported the Brewer amendment.
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