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Nebraska Enacts Progressive Reform To Expand Voting Rights

By Scott Keyes  

"Nebraska Enacts Progressive Reform To Expand Voting Rights"

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Voters cast their ballot in La Vista, Nebraska during the 2012 election.

Voters cast their ballot in La Vista, Nebraska during the 2012 election.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Nobody would mistake Nebraska for a politically moderate state. It was the first state in the country to enact a 20-week abortion ban. They passed legislation restricting scientists’ ability to study climate change. Approximately 60 percent of voters cast a ballot for Mitt Romney in 2012, the ninth highest percentage of any state.

So it was perhaps surprising when Gov. Dave Heineman (R) signed LB565 last week, a bill that enacts a form of same-day voter registration, one of the most progressive voting reforms in the country. The bill was passed by the nominally-nonpartisan-but-functionally-Republican unicameral legislature 37-3, with nine lawmakers abstaining.

The new law allows citizens to register to vote at the polls during the early voting period and cast their ballot on the same day. Same-day registration will be available until the second Friday before Election Day.

Still, though the law certainly goes a long way in strengthening voting rights in the Cornhusker State, it’s not as strong as in some other states. “It’s same-day registration-lite,” Estelle Rogers, Legislative Director at Project Vote, told ThinkProgress, noting that people who cast their vote with this new option are essentially using a provisional ballot. That’s because the law requires election officials to verify a same-day registrants eligibility via a letter sent to the voter’s home address, rather than counting their ballots automatically. Assuming the letter does not return as undeliverable within 10 days of being mailed, the vote is counted.

Studies have found that simply allowing citizens to register at the polls boosts voter turnout rates anywhere from 7 to 14 percentage points. The reason is simple: many citizens are either too busy (or too lazy) to register to vote before it’s time to cast a ballot. Easing the process, as Nebraska is doing, brings large swaths of Americans into the political fold.

Why would a conservative state like Nebraska back such a strong progressive voting reform, particularly as many other red states are enacting voter ID laws instead? One theory, as I argued in my college thesis, is that states where Republicans dominate the legislature are actually more likely to enact same-day registration because they’re less concerned that a potential change in voting rules could swing control to the Democrats. In other words, Nebraska Republicans would be more likely to support same-day registration than Iowa Republicans. This theory helps explain why some other strongly-Republican states like Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana have also adopted same-day registration.

Update

Voting rights advocates note that Nebraskans were already de facto permitted to register and vote on the same day during the state’s early voting period. LB 565 was originally written to end that option, but was later amended to preserve same-day registration, though with the new identity verification mailers provision.

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