"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.
Nebraska Voter ID Legislation (LB 239): Voter Restrictive or Voter Motivational?
The Nebraska Unicameral has started its new session this January, and there are serious concerns about the potential passage of Legislative Bill (LB) 239. The bill calls for the voter to produce specific identification; if the voter is unable to provide that identification, he or she is not allowed to vote.
While there is a legitimate concern that potential voters be able to identify themselves, people of color have historically been disenfranchised by the electoral process, and it is a reasonable assumption that this legislation will seriously reduce the number of people of color and low-income citizens who participate in elections and will limit their opportunities to vote.
Omaha’s ward two (north Omaha) and ward four (south Omaha) have historically had the worst voter turnouts in the community. Why? Some feel that district elections have been for individuals who lack political sophistication and that the politicians who are elected by cliques or religious groups act as if there is little to no accountability for their actions.
Upon close reading of LB 239, it seems to be poorly written and contains a great deal of redundancy. The bill is 36 pages, and the provision for changes in voter identification could have been succinctly stated in six pages or fewer. For example, the bill contains the term “government-issued photographic identification” at least 14 times, and the term is underlined. The bill contains specific instructions for government workers, with two different examples of the oath the voter must sign if he or she lacks proper identification.
There are provisions in the bill to help address voter fraud, but the punishment seems extreme. If someone fraudulently votes for a candidate, then that person can be fined $10,000 and/or given five years in prison. There are people in Nebraska who have served only one year for murder.
Four provisions in the bill bear emphasis:
1. The resident of a nursing home is not required to present a government photographic identification prior to being issued a ballot. This illustrates that lawmakers are willing to make exceptions they deem fit.
2. In section 13 of the bill, it states that “An application for a state identification card who indicates that he or she is indigent and in need of a state identification card for purposes of voting under the Election Act should be issued a state identification card at no cost” (p. 33). The argument made by liberals that conservatives are taking away the right of the underclass to vote is undermined by this provision.
3. The bill requires the Secretary of State to play a larger role in dealing with this issue instead of the Election Commission offices. Why? Is the Election Commission not competent to handle voting identification issues?
4. The bill states that if people want to vote, they must do so in English. This is odd, since many businesses and educational institutions have provided ways to accommodate non-English speakers. Is it fair to give newcomers who want to participate in our electoral process an opportunity to use their native language? Is it fair not to? In the history of Nebraska politics, fewer than three Latinos have been elected to office, and racial minorities with the wherewithal to vote have not made a significant impact on the racial identity of elected candidates, even with the high percentage of Latinos in south Omaha and some small towns in Nebraska.
As the old adage goes, if you don’t vote, you don’t count. Think carefully about who doesn’t count under this bill.
LB 239 has been taken off the legislature’s agenda. Nebraska Sen. Charlie Janssen made this statement: “The bill will be brought back at some point this session. There is a chance that another senator may prioritize it, or I may prioritize it myself. Supporters of the bill are working at the grassroots level to get the facts of the bill out to the public. I would encourage people who have questions about the bill to visit the website www.stopvotefraud.net.”