Civic Nebraska @ the Statehouse: Bye-Bye Biennium

Director of Public Policy Westin Miller reviews the 2022 session of the Nebraska Legislature.

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Hello friends, voting rights advocates, and conspiracy theorists hate-reading this post! Today, April 20, is the last day of the 2022 legislative session and there is much to discuss. As expected, the session was largely dominated by headline-grabbing controversies like abortion, the Nebraska prison system, and taxes, but we were able to find some time for elections, too. 
If you’re just joining us from your hibernal slumber, welcome. Two sentences to catch you up: This was the second half of Nebraska’s legislative biennium, and it was extra weird because we had a special session for redistricting which feels like it just ended. Things were tense from Day One. 

Civic Nebraska had three priorities for this legislative session.

›› Focus on Nebraska’s election infrastructure. The boring, administrative changes that build our elections system are often where the greatest impact can be made, for better or for worse. And, as it turns out, many of these infrastructure improvements are still free from the disingenuous toxicity that makes any controversial election bill unmovable.
›› Counter the conspiracy theories. We knew going into this legislative session that the election conspiracy rhetoric was ramping up in Nebraska. We very much see countering that rhetoric as part of our role and were prepared to do so both inside and outside of the Capitol.
›› Stop an onslaught of bad bills. As conspiracy rhetoric ramps up, so do harmful election bills. We’re fortunate that a majority of Nebraska senators don’t give in to baseless, Mike Lindell-style conspiracy panic. But most does not mean all. We knew some bad ones were coming, and we were prepared to fight them. 

The results: One large elections salad, to go 

Despite the overwhelming number of controversial, eight-hour debates this session, the Legislature was still able to get a large elections package on the governor’s desk in the nick of time. This was made possible by a lot of work and negotiations between the Secretary of State’s office, members of the government committee, county election officials, and other elections stakeholders like Civic Nebraska. 
The way we get around the time constraints (in every issue area, not just elections) is by amending a bunch of bills together into one superbill. They’re usually called Christmas Tree Bills (upon which other bills are hung). I’m trying, unsuccessfully, to call them Salad Bills (into which other bills are chopped and tossed). 
This year, our Salad Bill was LB843, introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer. LB843 was the annual “cleanup” bill brought by the Secretary of State’s Office. The Secretary of State’s Office is constantly working to improve our elections system by making small changes (ranging from rule changes to typo corrections), and most years they ask the chair of the government committee to introduce those changes as a bill. 
LB843 was a little more controversial than we’re used to seeing in a bill called “cleanup,” but it made a lot of important changes. Fortunately, Civic Nebraska was able to work with the Secretary of State’s office early in January to suggest amendments alleviating our concerns, and those amendments were adopted.
Most notably, we were able to remove language that could have resulted in the elimination of some counties’ permanent early voter list, and we helped improve language that cuts down on confusing, out-of-state “paperwork” without making life too difficult for in-state organizations doing legitimate voter registration and get-out-the-vote work.

A few other important changes made by LB843 

›› Creates a working definition of a political subdivision;
›› Allows for the use of signature stamps by folks who can’t sign their name;
›› Allows voters in all-mail counties to, in some instances, be election workers in other counties;
›› Clarifies election deadlines for our friends in Mountain Standard Time;
›› Removes a burdensome notary requirement for replacement ballots; and
›› Protects dropboxes from electioneering.
Once LB843 was advanced from the committee, it then became the base of the salad. Through a large committee amendment, the following bills were added:
LB849 (Bostar): Makes it clear that election officials must enforce the results of recall elections;
LB861 (McCollister): created an optional email address line on candidate filing forms;
LB928 (Sanders): Requires candidates for certain elective offices to make their advertisements more accessible by either including closed captioning or posting a transcript of advertisements;
LB1263 (Clements): This bill, written by the Secretary of State’s office, creates security requirements and a legislative framework for secure ballot dropboxes;
LB841 (Brewer): Also from the Secretary of State’s office, expanded UOCAVA protections to some national guard members and first responders;
LB858 (Clements): Civic Nebraska opposed this bill, but was able to work with senators and the secretary of state’s office to loosen up the language to be much better. The original bill banned the use of any private money to fund elections. As an amendment, the bill simply clarifies that the private money must be appropriated by the Legislature (in the same way a federal elections grant would be appropriated).
LB843 as amended, big salad, advanced from final reading with 45 “yes” votes, and Gov. Ricketts signed LB843 on April 19. 
I was going to write out a long list of all the bad bills we stopped this year, but I’m finding myself really not wanting to give them more airtime right now. If you want to hear the line-by-line, join our Voting Rights Advocate debrief at 6 pm CDT on Monday, April 25. Otherwise, just know that we stopped all sorts of bad elections bills this year, ranging from cutting vote-by-mail timelines to banning political participation as extra credit in schools. 

Finally, a note on conspiracy theories. 

Look. This year was intense in Election World. There were a lot of people who showed up in the government committee to advocate for all sorts of things I disagree with. A few of them took an interest in me personally, which I didn’t love. Some were insistent our election technology is compromised, others were in a panic about voting by mail, and one guy was insistent that he had proof of voter fraud but refused to share. 
Should some of these folks be dismissed out of hand? Yeah, probably. That last guy especially. But there are several who should not. There are more people than ever expressing concerns about our elections infrastructure, and many of the concerns are rooted in genuine questions, genuine care, and genuine curiosity. Do I know the ins and outs of our ES&S contract? Sure don’t, and this session has inspired me to take a closer look.
Is it possible that somebody got mailed two ballots for the same voter? Of course, it’s possible. That doesn’t mean I think there’s something sinister going on. It just means I take questions and new ideas seriously, and I’m not interested in hating or dismissing someone just because their ideas are new to me, or because I don’t agree with the conclusions they draw. I also have no choice but to begin by assuming good intentions, in which case we absolutely have some common ground. I am also concerned about election security. I’m worried about Russian interference in our elections. I’m worried about misinformation. I’m worried about barriers to participation. I’m worried about eroded trust in the voting process.
Civic Nebraska has and will continue to fight for the kind of safe, accessible elections we believe every Nebraskan deserves. And just because you think voter ID sounds good doesn’t mean we are automatically, unequivocally opponents or enemies. If you spend your time as a citizen or as an elected official trying to do harm to or decrease turnout in a specific population then yeah, we have a problem. But I plan to spend this interim at least taking a minute to consider what we might have in common. 
So whether you’re a voting rights advocate or somebody who thinks Civic Nebraska is part of an underground communist conspiracy, I hope you’ll join me this summer in taking a beat from the useless binary script of politics and considering how we can work together. Let’s do some genuine good for our elections system and for Nebraskans who are just trying to make their voice heard at the ballot box. 
– Westin Miller

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The Omaha native and Lincoln resident helps coordinate Civic Nebraska’s policy initiatives and organizes campaigns for policy-related issues as part of our Voting Rights Initiatives team.

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