OMAHA, Neb. – State Sen. Mike Groene was frustrated but not terribly surprised last year when Nebraska’s Legislature rejected, for the seventh time, a measure that would have forced voters to show a government-issued identification at the polls.
The issue is a slam dunk in most conservative states, where Republican majorities simply brush aside Democratic objections to pass more restrictive voting laws. But not in Nebraska, a GOP stronghold whose quirky, nonpartisan Legislature enables more liberal lawmakers to derail bills that are widely supported in a state where Republicans hold every statewide and federal office.
“It’s the way the system is set up,” said Groene, a conservative Republican who supports a voter ID law. “It isn’t designed to address major issues that most of the state wants.”
Now, a campaign bankrolled by the conservative governor's mother is aiming to end Nebraska's distinction as the only GOP state without a voter ID law. The group Citizens for Voter ID is gathering the roughly 125,000 signatures needed to put the issue on the 2022 general election ballot, and even opponents acknowledge the measure probably will pass.
The effort is the latest reflection of a polarized political climate that no longer tolerates much variation from the prevailing partisan agenda, regardless of local tradition or circumstances. Although Nebraska's unique nonpartisan, one-chamber legislative system is unlikely to change because it's part of the state constitution, politicians are increasingly willing to work around it.
“I thought it was time to take it to the people,” said state Sen. Julie Slama, the petition drive's sponsor.
Slama acknowledged that Nebraska has no history of voter fraud, but she said constituents in her rural, conservative district wonder why the state doesn't have a measure that's Republican orthodoxy elsewhere.
“It makes us look bad,” said Doug Kagan, president of the conservative Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, which has pushed for voter ID laws. “Every year, there are more states that pass some kind of voter ID law. It’s kind of an anomaly that we haven’t passed one."
The campaign has already raised $377,000, with all but $1,000 of that coming from Marlene Ricketts, the mother of GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts and the wife of Joe Ricketts, a billionaire conservative activist.
Opponents argue that the goal of voter ID isn't to ensure secure elections but to discourage voting by minorities and others who tend to vote for Democratic candidates. But they acknowledge that Nebraska is likely to remain solidly Republican with or without voter ID. Nebraska is 88% white and backed Donald Trump in the 2020 general election by 19 percentage points over Democrat Joe Biden.
Nevertheless, following the party line here probably won't be easy. Since 1937, Nebraska's Legislature, unlike all other states, has been comprised of one chamber and lawmakers have been officially nonpartisan, though party affiliations are widely known. There are no formal caucus meetings where party leaders tell members how to vote; Democrats are sometimes chosen to head committees despite holding only 17 of the 49 seats.
Longstanding rules also require a two-thirds vote to overcome a filibuster, meaning supporters of a bill need at least 33 members — one more seat than Republicans hold.
Those rules have helped Democrats beat back numerous bills over the years, including charter school proposals, efforts to end the state’s practice of splitting up its presidential electoral votes and, of course, voter ID.
It leaves Republicans frustrated, but over the years few have tried to change the system, approved by voters at the urging of former U.S. Sen. George Norris, a progressive Republican who argued it would be more responsive to regular people's needs. Some legislators also believe the system encourages cooperation and limits firebrands who want to roll over their opponents.
Republican state Sen. John McCollister, of Omaha, has voted against voter identification bills and other bills supported by his party, drawing strong condemnation from GOP officials outside the Legislature, but not from his colleagues.
“I think most of us feel free to be more independent than we would in a state with a party caucus system," said McCollister. “We aren’t so quick to jump on some of these political exercises that other states have gotten into.”
But the push for ballot measures may grow stronger as other partisan issues get stuck in the Legislature, said Hal Daub, a longtime Republican activist and former congressman and Omaha mayor. Over the last decade, petition drives have allowed Nebraska voters to reinstate the death penalty, expand Medicaid, regulate payday lenders, legalize casino gambling and raise the minimum wage — all issues where the electorate overruled state lawmakers.
“It's a structural problem that's going to force more of these initiatives,” said Daub, who donated $1,000 to the voter ID campaign.
Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte