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Battle over Felony Voting Ban Heats Up in Nebraska

Thirty of 49 Nebraska senators are needed to overturn a veto of a voting-rights bill for felons who have completed their sentences. (Nebraska Secretary of State)
Thirty of 49 Nebraska senators are needed to overturn a veto of a voting-rights bill for felons who have completed their sentences. (Nebraska Secretary of State)
May 3, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. – About 7,000 people live, work and pay taxes in Nebraska, but aren't eligible to vote in elections. That's because under current law, people with felony convictions must wait two years after completing their sentences before their voting rights are restored.

State lawmakers recently passed LB 75, legislation that would eliminate the waiting period, but Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the bill.

On Tuesday, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Justin Wayne, D-Omaha, filed a motion to override the governor's veto. In Wayne's view, it is important that Nebraskans understand the context under which the original voter-suppression law was passed.

"These disenfranchisement laws for ex-felons were introduced at a dark time in our history," he said, "particularly in Nebraska, where we were dealing with free slaves and we tried to make sure they couldn't vote."

Bri McLarty Huppert, director of voting rights with Nebraskans for Civic Reform, says people with felony offenses get lost in the shuffle after their release, and by the time two years pass, they don't realize they are eligible to vote. She notes the delay just adds to the many challenges individuals face as they reintegrate into the community.

"We've talked with individuals that have been impacted, especially after the governor's veto, and they kind of just shook their heads," she says. "They're saying, 'Again, we feel like we're not welcome. Again, we don't feel like part of the community, because our governor just said so.'

"We want to make sure that those individuals feel like they're a part of the community, so they become a part of our community."

Gov. Ricketts indicated concerns that LB 75 could violate the state constitution by creating the equivalent of a legislative pardon. But Sen. Wayne insists that wouldn't happen.

"I'm an attorney by trade and I studied the law for over 15 years," he said. "So, there's a current statute which my bill amends, and that statute has never been found to be unconstitutional."

Wayne notes there's evidence that people who return from prison and become voters have lower recidivism rates.

The votes of 30 of 49 Nebraska senators are needed to overturn the veto. The initial vote received 27 'yes' votes, with seven lawmakers absent.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - NE