‘We have a duty to act’: our testimony on LB20

On Feb. 22, 2023, Civic Nebraska Director of Public Policy Heidi Uhing testified in support of LB20, which would remove an arbitrary two-year waiting period for former felons to regain their right to vote.

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Hello, Sen. Brewer and members of the Government Committee. My name is Heidi Uhing, and I’m the public policy director at Civic Nebraska, here to testify in strong support of Sen. Wayne’s LB20.

We at Civic Nebraska have called Nebraska voters to conduct a poll about their thoughts on voting rights restoration from June 2022 to February 2023. We reached 665 voters, and 41 percent reported that no, they were not aware of the required two-year wait. And 81 percent reported that they would support a bill to remove that wait and restore voting rights to all free citizens.

So, despite the best efforts of the state’s nonprofits to inform people about their voting rights, confusion about this issue persists. I’m sure you all have stories from the campaign trail of Nebraskans telling you that they’re unable to vote due to their record. We have heard these stories too – some of them are shared here, today. When the state learns that there is persistent confusion that results in Nebraskans not enjoying all their civil rights, we have a duty to act. 

Heidi Uhing

There is a misperception that voter disenfranchisement affects urban areas more than rural ones. If crime were only an urban issue, rural areas could save a lot of money by sending their law enforcement home. Our state has a well-documented mass incarceration problem that impacts people statewide, and those incarceration rates make this policy an even more glaring problem for Nebraska in particular. We are keeping 18,000 Nebraskans from voting by perpetuating this policy year after year. Meanwhile, most other states that had similar policies have prioritized fairness and acknowledged that former felons have civil rights that shouldn’t be obstructed.

Nebraska is one of only two states to disenfranchise all felonies for a period of time beyond their sentence. The few remaining states with disenfranchisement policies are quickly changing their policy. In 2018, Florida decided by statewide ballot initiative to restore voting rights after the completion of the sentence, and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds recently restored voting rights to most Iowans who have completed their sentence. Iowa’s recent change leaves Nebraska as the only state in the Midwest with a policy of blanket disenfranchisement for a period beyond someone’s sentence. 

Sen. Aguilar will remember the work this committee did to remove the total voting restriction in 2005. The two-year wait was presented as a compromise to advance the initial bill out of committee. I was working at the Legislature at that time covering the Government committee, and I think anyone in that room would be surprised to see the two-year compromise still on the books 18 years later.

The two-year ban affects thousands of taxpaying Nebraskans. This creates a secondary class of citizens who must pay taxes and follow the law, but not otherwise participate in our democracy. This has been decried by lawmakers, civil rights groups, and religious leaders alike. If I am convicted of a felony and am sentenced to 10 years in prison, my punishment is 10 years in prison. When I’ve served my debt to society, all my rights must be restored. Eighteen-year-old citizens, as a default, have the right to vote. It’s not a privilege to be earned, it’s a constitutional right to be furiously protected. 

States must be consistent in how we treat constitutional rights. We show great concern about protecting people’s First Amendment and Second Amendment rights. We must be equally careful about protecting our voting rights, which are enshrined in four different constitutional amendments. It deserves the same protection. 

Finally, we’d like to thank Sen. Wayne for continuing to champion Nebraskans’ voting rights over his years of service. His approach to this issue is very moderate, reasonable, and so long overdue. We encourage the committee to support it.

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