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Scott Lautenbaugh, Ernie Chambers

Nebraska state Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha (right) speaks during debate Wednesday, April 3, 2013, on a measure that would reduce the number of days registered voters may cast their ballots in person from 35 to 25 days. Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha listens at left.

Nebraska took a first step Thursday toward reducing the number of days for in-person early voting in order to prevent situations like the one in which a blind Lincoln woman couldn't cast an early ballot because the machine to help disabled voters was not ready.

Lawmakers gave 31-0 first-round approval to a bill (LB271) by Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha that would cut the number of early-voting days from 35 to 30. The bill originally would have reduced the number of days to 25, but the 30-day period was reached in a compromise with opponents, who worried about restricting voter access.

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have early voting, according to the National Association of Secretaries of State. The average time for in-person early voting is 22 days, compared to Nebraska's 35, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Only five states have longer in-person early voting periods.

Nebraska voters can request a mail-in ballot 120 days before an election.

Lautenbaugh reluctantly accepted the compromise in order to end a filibuster against the original measure. He said Nebraska could be sued by a voter who is denied access to cast an early vote in person.

"We'll ... hope that it works. And if it doesn't ... you'll be dealing with it again -- maybe paying the claims if we are sued," he said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who was helping filibuster the original measure, said "a compromise is when neither side is pleased."

Late last year, a hearing officer, Lincoln attorney Robert Kinsey Jr., suggested reducing the period for in-person, early voting from 35 days to 25 days.

Kinsey was appointed to oversee the case, which stemmed from a complaint filed by Nebraskans for Civic Reform on behalf of Fatos Floyd of Lincoln. Floyd, who is blind, called the Lincoln Election Commissioner's Office on Oct. 3 — two days after in-person early voting began — to say she was bringing in a friend with visual impairment to vote on the county's Automark terminal but was told the machine's software wasn't yet available.

Neal Erickson, deputy secretary of state for elections, said earlier the main problem is that Nebraska law says the ballots must be certified by the secretary of state 50 days ahead of the election.

In the 15 days between the 50- and 35-day deadlines, election officials must finalize the ballot layouts, print the ballots and program Automark terminals, which were required under the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to disabled voters. The Automark terminal allows a disabled voter to make selections by using a touch screen or keypad while listening to the ballot over a set of headphones.

Lancaster County Election Commissioner Dave Shively testified at the hearing that the programming of the machine in his office -- which was done by Elections System & Software of Omaha -- wasn't completed until Oct. 9.

There are no penalties for not complying with the Help America Vote Act, but there can be injunctive relief to force counties to come into compliance. Floyd's complaint was the first filed in Nebraska under the Voting Rights Act.

Lautenbaugh's bill faces two more rounds on consideration.

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Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com.
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