LINCOLN — Nebraskans would have five fewer days to walk into an election office and cast early ballots under a bill advanced Thursday by the Legislature.
But Legislative Bill 271 aims to make it possible for everyone, both visually impaired and not, to vote at that time.
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, who introduced the bill, said it should bring Nebraska into compliance with a federal law about voting access for disabled people.
“This is not meant to keep anyone from voting,” he said. “This is meant to address a complaint of alleged discrimination.”
Last fall, Nebraska was found in violation of the Help America Vote Act requirement that every polling place have equipment to assist visually impaired people to cast secret ballots.
Fatos Floyd of Lincoln filed a complaint after being told she could not cast an early secret ballot because the equipment had not been programmed yet.
While early voting started Oct. 1, Lancaster County election officials told her the equipment would not be ready for 10 days to two weeks.
Nebraska uses AutoMark machines, which can enlarge the type on ballots or read the choices to voters, who listen with headphones. Voters make their choices using buttons on the machines, which then print out a ballot that can be scanned with all other ballots.
Secretary of State John Gale, based on the recommendation of a hearing officer, sought to reduce the number of days for in-person early voting to 25, down from the current 35 days.
Lautenbaugh, a former Douglas County election commissioner, said the later date would make it possible to program the AutoMark machines and have them ready when in-person voting starts.
Election officials face tight deadlines — especially in presidential election years — for putting together ballots and getting them certified. Programming cannot start until the regular ballots are certified.
But other senators objected that the proposed solution would penalize voters by shrinking their opportunities to vote.
They suggested changing the certification deadline or finding a new vendor to program the machines.
“I’m not going to support any bill that reduces access when there are alternatives to not reduce access,” said Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha.
Debate on the bill took most of Wednesday afternoon, as senators raised various concerns relative to voting and elections. But by Thursday afternoon, when debate resumed, Lautenbaugh had reached a compromise with opponents.
The compromise would cut the in-person early voting period to 30 days.
Under both the compromise and the original bill, no changes would be made in the time period when voters could request that an early ballot be mailed to them or walk in and pick up a ballot to mail back.
Gale said he was disappointed at the compromise but expected election officials would do their best to make it work.
“I don’t know if five days will be enough,” he said. “We’ll have to see.”
The average for most states for early in-person voting is 22 days. But of the 33 states that offered early voting last year, five provided more than 35 days to cast early ballots.
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