Dueling GOP bills to implement voter ID could hit rural areas hardest

March 20, 2023, 10 a.m. ·

Neb Examiner Voter ID.jpeg
A Lancaster County voter returns her request card for an early voting ballot. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Legislative proposals to carry out Nebraska’s new constitutional requirement that voters show photo ID would make voting tougher on the 20% of voters who return ballots by mail or county election drop boxes.

One of the voter ID bills with the best chance to pass this year would require early ballots returned by mail or drop box to be notarized. Another would significantly limit who can request ballots by mail.

Legislative Bill 535, as State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar has proposed amending it, would require that a notary public sign the early-voting ballot envelope after checking the voter’s state-approved photo identification card. 

Legislative Bills 228 and 230 from State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard would, among other changes, end “no excuse” voting by mail for most Nebraskans, allowing the practice mainly for people serving in the military or living in a nursing home or assisted living facility. 

Based on an analysis by the Nebraska Examiner, notaries are few and far between in some rural Nebraska counties, and the ratio varies widely even in some urban and suburban counties. The disparity risks limiting the participation of rural and urban voters alike. But it could disproportionately hit Nebraskans in poorer and less populous parts of the state, the analysis shows.

Efforts to sharply limit who gets to vote by mail could reduce voting by rural and suburban GOP voters as much or more as by urban Democrats, interviews with political observers on the left and right indicated. Among the Republican-heavy counties that vote by mail or drop box at higher rates than the rest of the state are Harlan, Wayne, Thayer, Hamilton, Gage, Adams, Fillmore and Cass.

Also, rural voters travel longer distances to vote in person, and many have less access to transportation. Their economic challenges echo concerns about the bills expressed by urban Nebraskans in North and South Omaha. 

Too few notaries 

Slama, in an interview, said she got the idea for the notary requirement from election laws in neighboring Missouri and South Dakota.

Each state’s approach is somewhat different, however: Missouri allows “no excuse” voting in person for two weeks each election, but not by mail. Those with an approved excuse to vote by mail must verify their identity using a notary, said JoDonn Chaney, a spokesman for Missouri Secretary of State John Ashcroft. South Dakota gives voters the option of sending in a copy of a photo ID with their ballot or getting their mail-in ballot request notarized, said Adam Miller, a spokesman for South Dakota Secretary of State Monae Johnson.

The spokesmen in both states said their offices have not heard many concerns about notary requirements in the years since they were implemented. Voting rights advocates in both states have argued differently, saying the requirement makes it harder for poor, elderly, remote and minority voters to participate.

The state listed 27,872 active notaries as of February, according to the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office. Records showed more than 1.22 million registered voters. Border to border, that means the state has about one working notary for every 44 registered voters.

But the distribution of notaries is uneven. Maps built using data acquired from the state showed the largest gaps for notaries in rural Nebraska. 

The Examiner’s heat map of notaries shows large gaps in southern Cherry County and stretches of Hooker and Thomas Counties. Seven Nebraska counties had fewer than 10 notaries. McPherson County had the fewest, with 3. Arthur had 4. Loup had 5.  

When calculated by the number of registered voters, Stanton, McPherson and Loup Counties showed a single notary for more than 100 registered voters. Next closest was Sioux County with one notary for every 87 voters. Arthur County had one for every 84 voters. 

By comparison, Douglas and Lancaster Counties, the state’s most populous, had one notary for every 42 or 43 registered voters. Buffalo, Hall and Scotts Bluff Counties (home to Kearney, Grand Island and Scottsbluff-Gering, respectively) had one notary for every 37 or 38 voters. Madison (home to Norfolk), and Platte (home to Columbus), had one for every 33 to 35 voters. 

By contrast, Sarpy County, the state’s third most populated and with a large proportion of conservative voters, had fewer notaries, with one for every 76 voters.  The situation there might be better than in many rural counties, political observers said, because Sarpy residents vote by mail less often than their urban peers, and many of them work in Omaha and could access notaries there.

Of the 11 rural counties that vote entirely by mail, Stanton County returned the most ballots by mail or drop box per notary in 2022, with 82. That was nearly double the next closest in Dixon County, which returned 48 early ballots by mail or drop per notary.

Nebraska charges $30 to apply as a traditional notary. Notaries can be found in many of Nebraska’s courthouses, law offices, banks and other businesses.

Those numbers assume every notary would participate, and some portion of them wouldn’t, officials said. Slama’s bill makes notary participation optional, but they would not be allowed to charge voters for their services. Some wouldn’t be allowed by their employers to participate during work hours, an official with the Nebraska Notary Association confirmed. Notaries at banks, for example, often are limited to performing their service only for account holders. He also confirmed that some notaries might simply choose not to participate. 

Drew Folk, a Democrat who lives in Mullen, said the notary requirement creates “another unnecessary hurdle” for people to vote. The proposal, which he described as a solution for a non-existent problem, could make it harder for Nebraskans to vote, he said.

“That’s clearly the issue,” he said. “Hooker County is heavily Republican, so most voters vote the day of the election, anyway, so for a lot of them they are unconcerned about any inconveniences this poses to early voters.”

Joanie Marland, an active Hooker County Republican, said she has no problem driving the 15 miles to Mullen to vote, and she prefers to vote in person. Rural people, she said, are used to driving into town on errands. She said she is fine with requiring mail-in ballots to be notarized because she worries about people voting for someone else.

“It needs to be hard to vote,” Marland said. “You need to make an effort. People have died for the right for us to vote and we need to take it very seriously. And if you have to show ID to rent a car, you need to show ID to vote.” 

Secretary of State Bob Evnen, a Republican and longtime supporter of voter ID initiatives, whose office oversees notary applications as well, has not taken a formal position on either bill, as written. After studying the Examiner’s map and data about notary locations, Evnen said of the notary requirement, “It’s not a practical proposal, and I do not think it will be part of the final bill.”

Costs of curbing voting by mail

LB 228 and LB 230 from State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard would end “no excuse” voting by mail for most Nebraskans. He did not return messages seeking comment for this story.

Among other changes, the bills would force residents of the 11 rural counties that vote entirely by mail back into the voting booth. Several of those counties would have to scramble for voting sites and equipment. 

“They don’t have the equipment, first of all, and they don’t have the staff,” said Jon Cannon, executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials.

Voters in the 11 all-mail counties — Boone, Cedar, Clay, Cherry, Dawes, Dixon, Garden, Knox, Merrick, Morrill and Stanton — have posted more than half of the state’s highest turnout rates since the switch to mail. Nearly 74% of Boone County voters, for instance, voted in the 2022 general election. Voter registration in each of those counties leans heavily Republican.

Turnout there and statewide would decline if the early-voting changes are adopted, conservative and liberal political observers agreed. One conservative political consultant, speaking on the condition that he not be named, said conservatives risk losing more than they gain.

“I could see it hurting Republicans in city council races, county board races, school board races and big-ticket races,” he said. “Our voters like voting early, too.”

Democrats return ballots by mail and drop box at higher rates than Republicans. But the sheer numbers advantage that registered Republicans hold in 90 of Nebraska’s 93 counties — all but Douglas, Thurston and Dakota Counties — means they could lose more voters by mail and drop box in many places than the Democrats. 

Federal law and years of case law protect the rights of Nebraskans who are sick or disabled from having their right to vote infringed. Critics of Erdman’s bill raised questions during the hearing about the constitutionality of its limits on voting by mail for this and other reasons.

Paul Landow, a retired political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who used to work in Democratic Party politics, criticized the proposals to require notarized ballots and to restrict early balloting as mean-spirited efforts to limit who gets to vote to a certain class and type of individual.

“There are certain elements of the political population that want to spend their lives making it more difficult for regular people to vote. And this is just another way of doing that. We’re supposed to be trying to make it easier to vote, not harder,” Landow said.

“All this is is another attempt to fix it so poor minorities have a harder time voting,” he said. “This is an effort to get fewer Democrats to vote. But these things always cut both ways.”

He said Republicans would soon realize that their 262,000-person advantage in voter registrations means that they could lose more voters than Democrats from these changes, given the number of Republicans who live in rural areas. 

UNO political scientist Randall Adkins agreed that the math could work out that way for Republicans in a state as dominated by a single political party as Nebraska. 

“Just the proportions and the math suggest that Republicans stand to lose more votes,” he said.

It is unclear where those votes would be lost, he said. Republicans won’t lose enough voters for it to matter in any statewide races, Adkins said. The biggest changes could be in local and regional elections pitting factions of Republicans against one another and in close races in Omaha and Lincoln, where Republicans could gain a slight edge. Examples include legislative races in competitive districts and the 2nd Congressional District race for U.S. House.

“In terms of how the politics of this play out, I don’t see this making that much of a change,” Adkins said. “You did have a couple of close legislative races that did tip the balance on whether the Legislature was filibuster proof. Maybe that’s the kind of margin you’re talking about. But the question is whether you want to put the burden on voters for that small of a change.”

Adkins said Republicans in many states are split between people looking back to the 2020 and 2022 elections and people looking forward to 2024. Those looking back are still trying to restrict mail-in voting, fighting perceptions of fraud that the facts don’t bear out, he said.

The Republicans more focused on 2024 are starting to embrace voting by mail, he said, to see if they can beat Democrats within the rules as they exist.

What’s next

Neither of the proposals, as written, has enough support yet to pass out of the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. State Sen. Tom Brewer, committee chairman, said the group will start meeting over lunch soon to hash out a bill that does what voters want “without going too far.”

Brewer said he does not know which sections of the voter ID bills might be adopted. He said he hopes to focus the committee on implementing the “will of the people.” He said they voted to require ID to vote, not to make massive, systemic changes.

“It’s going to be painful,” said Brewer, who represents north-central Nebraska, including Gordon and Valentine. “It’s going to be a long process.”

Legislative conservatives, including Slama and Erdman, have argued that Nebraskans want voting to be more intentional and more secure, citing the 65% of state voters who supported the voter ID measure. Slama said senators cannot compromise on the ballot measure’s language, which requires photo ID for every vote cast.

Slama said she plans to offer an amendment to let voters without access to a notary visit their county election office to let a county clerk or county election official verify their ID, much like the process would be for people voting early in person.  

She said she and others want the Legislature to implement a conservative vision of voter ID. She doesn’t know whether the notary requirement will stay in the final bill, she said, but she considers it a workable solution.

“I’m hearing the most pushback from people who were generally opposed to voter ID in the first place,” Slama said. 

Committee member State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln said she has confidence that Brewer will do his best to represent the whole group, including those like her who oppose voter ID.

Conrad said support does not appear widespread among committee members for requiring notarization of early ballots. And committee members seem “overwhelmingly opposed” to changing or eliminating current options to vote by mail, she said.

Conrad, a former executive director of ACLU Nebraska, said she and others will focus on eliminating or mitigating voter disenfranchisement or suppression, protecting mail-in voting and educating the public on any changes that might affect what people need to do to vote.

Local voting rights advocates, including ACLU Nebraska and Civic Nebraska, have criticized both legislative proposals for limiting access to the ballot box guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions. Other states have faced costly lawsuits while implementing voter ID bills.

Heidi Uhing, public policy director for Civic Nebraska, said state senators are responding to people who have been told inaccurately and often for political reasons that Nebraska’s voting system needs fixing. 

She pointed to a state post-election audit done for Evnen’s office that found no evidence of fraud in Nebraska’s 2022 elections.

“We’re kind of at the brink here — where the Government Committee has a responsibility of responding to those concerns without making our election system worse,” Uhing said.