LINCOLN — Proponents of election changes say Nebraska’s neighbors could teach the state a thing or two about registering voters — if the state wanted to learn.
Iowa and Wyoming allow people to register and vote on Election Day.
Kansas allows voter registration online, and Colorado plans to launch an online registration system next year.
Colorado and South Dakota both allow residents to cast ballots even if they have moved within the state and not re-registered at their new address.
All are steps being encouraged by advocates for change to add and keep more citizens on the voting rolls.
But Nebraska officials have reacted warily to those ideas.
Secretary of State John Gale said the current voter registration system is easy to use and works well. Although he says he is not closed-minded about new ideas, he takes a “very, very cautious” approach to any proposed changes.
“We’re not looking for fixes because we don’t sense that there is any failure in our system,” he said.
Some have philosophical objections to making voter registration easier.
At a public hearing Friday, State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont told of the efforts he made to vote with an absentee ballot while serving shipboard in the military. Janssen said others need to take similar responsibility to get registered and vote.
“Why are we changing the whole system for the people who are too lazy to get registered?” he asked.
Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, has an answer for such objections.
He said making it easier for people to register is one way to get more people to vote and to take an interest in government.
“My own view is to expand participation and extend the franchise as broadly as you can,” Avery said. “My view is that improves democracy.”
Avery has twice introduced legislation to allow Election Day registration in Nebraska. His latest proposal remains in committee, along with a similar bill introduced by Sen. Kent Rogert of Tekamah.
Backers of the idea point to the experience of other states. Iowa, for example, had the fifth-highest voter turnout in the nation last year and saw 45,929 people register on Election Day.
A study by Demos, a think tank on election issues based in New York City, estimated Election Day registration could improve Nebraska voter turnout by 5.4 percent overall and as much as 10.6 percent among citizens ages 18 to 25.
But Gale and county election officials say the idea would create major headaches for poll workers, could slow down the voting process and would not give officials a chance to verify registration information.
Matching new registrants with the right ballots is more complicated in Nebraska than Iowa because of the many smaller offices on Nebraska ballots.
Nebraskans for Civic Reform, a group pushing Election Day registration, argues that the logistics can be worked out.
“It’s something that is feasible and it’s not rocket science,” said Adam Morfeld, the group’s executive director.
Nebraskans for Civic Reform also is pushing for an online voter registration option in Nebraska. The idea has not been introduced in the state before, but Sen. Bob Giese of South Sioux City plans to offer a bill next year.
Giese said Nebraska can learn from other states about using technology to get more people involved. Online registration would supplement, not replace, the current paper system.
“It’s the way things are headed,” Giese said.
Kansas’ online system is a collaborative effort by state election officials and the motor vehicles department.
People must have a driver’s license or state identification card to register online, and the system draws information and signatures from the driver’s license database for the voter registration record.
Brad Bryant, Kansas state election director, said electronic registration cuts down on the cost and inaccuracies of a paper-based system.
A study in Maricopa County, Ariz., found that it cost 83 cents to process a paper registration, compared with 3 cents for an online one.
Gale has not explored the idea in depth but worries about the safety and security of Internet-based registration. He said he expects it may be a decade before Nebraska takes the online leap.
There are no proposals currently for Nebraska to follow Colorado or South Dakota’s lead in letting people cast provisional ballots if they move within the state and have not changed their voter registration.
Nebraska allows people to cast provisional ballots only if they have moved within a county and not re-registered.
Gale was hesitant about the cost and potential value of an expanded system of provisional ballots. He said he believes most people who move change their voter registration when they change the address on their driver’s license.