LINCOLN (AP) — Opponents of a voter identification bill threatened a lawsuit Thursday if Nebraska lawmakers approve it, while supporters cast the measure as a preventive effort to protect against voter fraud.
The issue triggered a heated debate during a legislative hearing, where opponents outnumbered supporters by a nearly 5-to-1 margin. Some compared the bill to poll taxes levied in the post-Civil War South to keep minorities from voting. The head of a Nebraska taxpayers' group argued that any person who was "too lazy" to request a free state-issued ID probably wouldn't vote on Election Day.
Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, a Republican candidate for governor, introduced the bill. He's tried similar measures several times, with last year's attempt making it to the floor after supporters failed to overcome an eight-hour filibuster.
Voter ID, an issue throughout the nation's statehouses, is trumpeted by Republicans as a way to prevent voter fraud, while Democrats call it a political ploy to suppress voters who may not have proper identification, particularly groups that typically vote Democratic.
No cases of voter fraud have been reported in Nebraska. The bill would entitle voters without a driver's license to a free, state-issued identification card. The Department of Motor Vehicles would give free cards to voters who are indigent, and voters without IDs would still be allowed to cast provisional ballots.
Janssen, a former U.S. Navy rescue swimmer, said he cast his first vote while serving in the Persian Gulf.
"I'd hate to think that vote was wiped out by someone committing voter fraud," he told the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
Nebraskans for Civic Reform, a voting rights group, promised to sue the state if the bill passes. The group's executive director, Adam Morfeld, said the bill was unconstitutional and would trigger an "expensive and unnecessary" legal fight involving a problem that doesn't exist.
"I personally believe, and other courts have found in this in the past, that there has to be a compelling state interest to impose a burden on a constitutional right," Morfeld said. "For there to be a compelling state interest, there has an actual problem — an identifiable one."
If the measure passes, Nebraska would join 33 other states that have enacted voter identification laws. Sixteen states now request or require photo IDs. Seventeen states require IDs, but not necessarily ones that include photographs.
Janssen pointed to Nebraska statistics that show 98 percent of registered voters already have a state-issued ID.
The committee took no action on the bill Thursday. A similar bill made it to the floor last year, but supporters fell short of the votes they needed to end legislative debate.
Several Nebraska taxpayer groups spoke in support of the bill, saying the bill didn't pose any major hurdles for legal voters.
"Those who are too lazy to obtain a photo ID are probably too lazy to go to the poll on Election Day," said Doug Kagan, head of the group Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom.
Julie Condon, co-founder of Western Nebraska Citizen's Caucus in Ogallala, said the bill would ensure that non-citizens don't vote.
"Every time a non-citizen votes, they are taking away the votes of a citizen," she said.
Former state Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha, a leading figure in last year's voter ID filibuster, said the bill fails to address mail-in voting, which has been the main source of voter fraud in the small handful of cases reported nationwide.
"It's very clear that the true intent of (the bill) is voter suppression," said Council, who had represented a minority-heavy district in north Omaha.
The bill imposes "a restrictive and unnecessary" mandate for voters and would increase the workload of overburdened poll workers, Rebecca Gould, executive director of the group Nebraska Appleseed, said. She also said the measure undermines democracy and could hinder the voting rights of seniors, students and those with low incomes and disabilities.
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