An override of Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of a bill to restore ex-felons' voting rights failed Monday on a 23-23 vote.
Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne introduced the bill and made it his priority. The bill (LB75) would have restored voting rights to ex-felons immediately upon completion of their sentence or probation. Now, there is a two-year delay after their sentence completion before they can vote.
"Colleagues, today we took a step back. We took Nebraska back," Wayne said after the override failure. "My community will still feel like we discriminate. My community will still feel disenfranchised. And my community will still feel like Nebraska is not the good life for them."
Omaha has a $2 billion construction boom and is having a hard time finding workers because young people are fleeing the state, he said. They are doing so because of decisions like this and what it represents.
Wayne said that over three rounds of passing the bill, 36 senators had voted in favor of it. Many of them withdrew support on the override motion, which needed 30 votes. The only thing that changed were phone calls from the governor's office and outside influence, he said.
Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte voted to advance the bill on first reading and second reading. On final reading he was excused-not voting.
Groene said Monday the state Constitution says no person who has committed a felony can vote unless their civil rights are restored, and the Pardons Board restores rights.
"If (LB75) passed, it would be challenged," Groene said.
The current law that allows ex-felons to vote after two years is "one of those uneasy compromises" that everyone wants to leave alone, he said.
"They can wait two years," Groene said.
Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft, who also voted no on the override, but had voted yes on the second round of debate and present-not voting on other considerations of the bill, said her vote was not a political one.
Felons have limited experience with their communities and the state, she said.
"Have you actually been out paying the property taxes, paying the rent? Driving the streets? Knowing what the infrastructure is?" Brasch said. "Do you know the challenges of day-to-day living? Do you actually know those candidates, or is it by paid advertising?"
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And the media is not always accurate, she said.
Wayne will continue to fight for the rights of ex-felons who have completed their sentences to vote without waiting in the future, he said.
As the debate started, Wayne asked for a Miracle Monday.
"And what I mean by that is not necessarily hope or a lottery or a chance at winning a million dollars, but the chance that this body will find courage," Wayne said.
That would be courage to stand up to Ricketts, who is calling people out, he said.
"Let me be clear," Wayne said. "A vote against this override is a vote in favor of a past that is based and founded in racism, exclusion and fear."
The veto undermines the re-entry process and stigmatizes those trying to re-enter society, he said.
Supporters of the bill, including ACLU of Nebraska, Nebraskans for Civic Reform and the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said Nebraska had a chance at making its democracy more inclusive. It would have been the 20th state to automatically restore voting rights to citizens with past convictions.
The vote was not about the merits of the bill, but rather whether the Legislature is a separate body, Wayne said.
Judiciary Chairwoman Laura Ebke said she had asked last week for a formal opinion from Attorney General Doug Peterson on the question on the constitutionality of giving the vote immediately to ex-felons.
The response, Ebke said, was that the Attorney General's office would not address the constitutionality because it would not be appropriate.
A letter to Ebke from Assistant Attorney General L. Jay Bartel said her request would require the office to opine on the constitutionality of existing law -- the two-year waiting period -- and it is the attorney general's policy to decline such requests.
Ebke speculated that declining the request seeking opinion on LB75 could be a sign the attorney general knows that it's constitutional.
Ricketts had argued that restoring the right to vote contradicts the process set out in Nebraska's constitution. The two-year wait provides an incentive to maintain a clean record and avoid subsequent convictions, he said.