After a floor fight, legislative committee’s voter ID bill wins support over Slama’s
State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar and State Sen. Tom Brewer, who chairs the Government and Military Affairs Committee in the Nebraska Legislature, debate a voter ID bill Monday. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — The months-long fight over the best flavor of voter ID for Nebraska spilled over onto the floor of the Legislature Monday, with State Sen. Julie Slama staging a one-woman filibuster against the proposal forwarded by the Government and Military Affairs Committee.
But Slama failed to persuade the body to back her competing plan. After listening for eight hours, senators advanced the committee bill, 43-1.
Slama highlights flaws
Slama spent much of the day poking at the committee’s amendment, AM 1801. She questioned the constitutionality and legality of the amendment’s plan to carry out the new voter-approved constitutional requirement that Nebraska voters show a photo ID.
She repeatedly blamed the bill’s faults on Secretary of State Bob Evnen, and not the committee chairman, State Sen. Tom Brewer, who had sought Evnen’s help in drafting the amendment. Slama told the Legislature’s conservatives to question the bill because some Democrats backed it.
“The people who opposed voter ID are now in control of voter ID,” she said. “This process and procedure has failed Nebraskans.”
‘Not a conspiracy but a consensus’
State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, who serves on the Government Committee, disagreed, saying: “What you have here, my friends, is not a conspiracy but a consensus.”
Brewer said he felt that the final vote tally validated the process his committee carried out, from hearing from any member of the public who wanted to testify at public hearings to working with stakeholders to find the best balance they could to do what the voters wanted “without leaving people out.”
“Some of this was respect for the Government Committee,” Brewer said of the vote. “Some of this was respect for me. This was a one-person filibuster, and if you don’t get the legislation that you want, I’m not sure this is the best way … to get it.”
Competing approaches to voter ID
Slama, who was the public face of last fall’s voter ID ballot initiative, said her biggest concern remains that the committee amendment would let Nebraskans write down their own ID numbers from state-approved photo IDs when they request early voting ballots.
State and local election officials would check those ID numbers against an electronic database, which would show a corresponding photo ID. Slama argued Monday that letting someone write down their own ID number is not the same as requiring a voter to show a photo ID.
Her competing amendment, AM 1883, would require a signature from a registered Nebraska voter, a notary public or a military notary confirming that they had seen an early voter’s photo ID. She also wants early voters’ IDs checked when they return a ballot by mail, not when they request one.
Voting rights advocates, including Civic Nebraska and ACLU Nebraska, have criticized this approach as leaving voters too little time to fix mistakes on early ballots. They have said using mainly Nebraska voters as witnesses could limit voters traveling or serving in the military.
Slama argued that she modeled her approach after voter ID programs in other conservative states, including Missouri and South Dakota, and said the Government Committee’s proposal isn’t conservative enough. She said voters approved “a conservative vision for voter ID.”
Avoiding a special session
Days after saying she would do whatever it took to stop the committee’s bill, including forcing a special session, Slama took a subtler approach Monday, saying she wanted to help lawmakers avoid a special session later to address constitutional questions she raised about the bill.
Her argument mirrored many of the points voting rights advocates made against her proposal, namely that it couldn’t withstand judicial scrutiny. Over several hours, she suggested three fixes to the committee amendment.
First, she wanted to add additional layers of citizenship checks on top of the check the state performs when people first register to vote. She said people who register using the motor voter process at the Department of Motor Vehicles get checked, but others face less scrutiny.
State election officials have argued that the state already makes people swear under penalty of law that they are a U.S. citizen when they register to vote. They point to audits that found no fraud in Nebraska’s 2022 elections.
Second, Slama said she preferred more strictly requiring photo IDs to be checked by using witness attestation and notaries.
Lastly, she criticized the committee amendment for allowing too many exceptions to the voter ID requirement. Brewer said the exceptions were included to ensure the proposal could meet federal and state election law, the U.S. and Nebraska Constitutions and election case law. Exceptions include people with disabilities, those with religious objections to being photographed and those who have lost their IDs, who would be voting provisionally.
Slama argued that the committee amendment’s approach to helping Nebraska voters overcome “reasonable impediments” left a gap so wide those voters “have voter ID without an ID.”
“Right now, a voter can walk in and hand them a sheet with three reasons,” she said. “As long as they check one of those boxes, they don’t have to show an ID. If a person has a religious exemption to being photographed, we’re not going to make them be photographed.”
A focused bill
Brewer and members of his committee, including Conrad and State Sen. Jane Raybould of Lincoln, pushed back by citing letters of support for the committee amendment from 92 of the state’s 93 county election commissioners. (The exception was Sarpy County, where Slama’s sister, Emily Ethington, serves as election commissioner.)
Conrad, who opposed the voter ID ballot initiative, said she was pleased that Brewer and the committee had worked to minimize the potential harm from implementing voter ID on voters, including rural voters, voters in nursing homes and military members stationed outside Nebraska.
“The measure before you in the committee amendment is the most thoughtful approach,” Conrad said. “This will give election officials enough time to prepare changes for the 2024 election.”
New tone during debate
The subdued tone of Monday’s debate contrasted with Friday’s contentious demonstrations against a stricter abortion ban and state curbs on gender-affirming care for minors. State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, who led the filibuster against that legislation, joked with Slama on Monday.
Cavanaugh was one of several Democrats who yielded time to Slama to let her make her case. Others included State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue and Conrad. They also worked to give her brief moments of respite and rest because of her health.
For Slama, Monday’s filibuster marked a test of endurance just days after she was hospitalized with hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe form of nausea and vomiting tied to pregnancy. She powered through the full eight hours, at one point saying she needed a nap.
She handed fellow senators a binder of information with specific criticisms of the committee bill. Brewer answered with a handout of his own. Some of Slama’s sharpest criticisms involved cost estimates from the Secretary of State’s Office that estimated her bill would cost $20 million to implement.
Officials told the committee its amendment would cost about $2 million to carry out.
The committee attached its amendment to Legislative Bill 514 instead of Slama’s LB 535 because Slama had threatened to kill her bill if they tried. Brewer said he expects the second round of debate on Wednesday and final reading early next week.
In the end, committee members said their approach was pragmatic. One committee member, State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, said his goal for the bill and for Nebraska’s well-run elections was simple: “Do as little harm as possible.”
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