LINCOLN, Neb. (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 Nebraskans for Taxpayer 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.
Idaho first state to have fetal pain law rejected
BOISE, Idaho (AP) – Idaho has become the first state to have its so-called fetal pain law banning abortions after 20 weeks struck down by the federal courts.
The decision from U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill was handed down Wednesday as part of a ruling that also overturns other abortion restrictions in Idaho.
The ruling is binding only in Idaho but could have a persuasive effect in lawsuits challenging similar bans in other states — such as Arizona, where a suit is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Ten states in all have enacted fetal pain laws since 2010, said Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst with the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights and tracks laws affecting women’s health.
Nebraska was first, followed over the next few years by Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
But only three states have had the laws legally challenged. Eastern Idaho resident Jennie Linn McCormack was the first to sue over the fetal pain law and other abortion restrictions after Bannock County Prosecutor Mark Hiedeman charged her with a felony because police said she obtained an illegal abortion. A lawsuit has been brought in Georgia, as well; that case is still pending in the state courts.
Idaho Sen. Chuck Winder, who led the legislative push for the fetal pain law two years ago, said he and others would need to closely study Winmill’s ruling before deciding how the state should proceed.
"I’m very disappointed in the court in its decision to overturn the right to protect a life and protect a life from the pain of abortion," the Boise Republican said.
McCormack’s attorney, Richard Hearn of Pocatello, said Winmill’s ruling makes it clear that any attempts by states to ban abortions before a fetus can survive outside the womb are unconstitutional.
The ruling cited two landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases — Roe vs. Wade and Planned Parenthood vs. Casey — to show a woman has an absolute right to an abortion before the point of viability, Hearn said.
"It’s not just the fetal pain laws. It’s that fetal heartbeat law in Arkansas, too," Hearn said. Picking a "pre-viability" date to ban abortions is unconstitutional, he said.
"It’s as though legislatures all across the country are saying, ‘We don’t really care. We’re just going to do it anyway in the face of the Constitution,’" Hearn said. "Thankfully Winmill put a stop to that in Idaho."
Arkansas adopted a law Wednesday banning abortion at 12 weeks of pregnancy, around the time that a fetal heartbeat can be detected by abdominal ultrasound. It’s the earliest ban on abortions in the nation, followed only by Arizona, where a fetal pain law bans abortions at 18 weeks post fertilization, said Elizabeth West of the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks women’s reproductive health rights.
Despite Wednesday’s ruling, West said she doesn’t expect the legal battles over the laws in Idaho, Arizona or Georgia to end anytime soon.
"No one ever backs down," she said. "Whoever is on the losing end tends to appeal so these court cases end up taking several years, and particularly with these extreme restrictions, they will all end up in the Supreme Court."
Officials with the National Right to Life Committee didn’t return phone messages left by The Associated Press. And calls to the cellphone of David Ripley, the leader of Idaho Chooses Life, were unanswered.
Julie Rikelman, litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said her organization applauded Winmill’s decision.
"For 40 years, the Supreme Court has consistently held that women’s right to make their own decisions about whether to continue or end a pregnancy is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution," she said in a statement. "Today’s ruling has overturned a legislative assault by politicians who seek to interfere with that decision and deny women this fundamental right."