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Nebraska panel weighs tighter window for early voting

January 27, 2022 GMT

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A bill that would shorten the time window for early and mail-in voting in Nebraska and bar special interest groups from gathering large numbers of voter ballots hit a wall of resistance Wednesday in a legislative committee.

Advocates for voting rights, retirees, and disabled voters argued that the measure runs counter to Nebraska’s decades-long push to expand voter participation, while county officials raised concerns that shortening the window would increase their workloads. No one testified in favor of the bill at a hearing before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

The bill would cut the window from the current 35 days in regular elections to 22, the amount of time currently allowed for special elections. It also would bar people from collecting more than two ballots on voters’ behalf and submitting them to county election officials.

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Its sponsor, state Sen. Mike Groene, of North Platte, said the legislation still gives voters time to request, fill out and return a ballot, but would reduce the influence of advocacy groups who gather ballots from voters to submit to county election officials.

The practice, sometimes referred to as “ballot harvesting,” is legal in Nebraska and has long been used by special-interest groups and both major political parties. In 2015, supporters of a Bennington school bond issue gathered ballots from voters at drop-off sites near their schools.

Groene said his bill would also limit voter confusion by imposing the same time window on regular and special elections.

“I have confidence that all Americans have the ability, within 22 days, to get their ballot, make their choices and send it back,” said Groene, a Republican.

At the national level, President Trump publicly worried that voting by mail would hurt Republicans, but a study of the 2020 election found that the pandemic-driven surge in voting by mail didn’t help Democrats or lead to an increase in voting in presidential election years, but may increase turnout in off-years.

Opponents argued that shortening the bill would discourage voter partcipation and could have a disproportionate impact on people who are homebound or don’t have a car.

“The onset of COVID-19 has heightened the importance of accessibility and alternative options” for voting, said Edison McDonald, executive director of the Arc of Nebraska, a group that lobbies for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Lancaster County Election Commissioner Dave Shively said voter turnout in Nebraska has increased in every presidential election year since 1999, when Nebraska legalized no-excuse, early voting. Shively said he was concerned that shortening the timeframe for voters to submit ballots could lead to a glut of ballots that increases his staff’s workload.

Suzan DeCamp of AARP Nebraska said the state could lengthen the early-voting time window for special elections instead of shortening it for regular elections.

“Reducing the time could cause significant voter confusion as well, especially if this is done in an election year,” she said.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte