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Nebraska lawmakers debate reducing early voting days

Nebraska lawmakers on Wednesday began whether to reduce the number of days registered voters may cast their ballots in person.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh would reduce how long before an election voters can cast their ballots, from 35 days to 25. Lautenbaugh said the change is necessary because election officials need more time to program specialized voting machines used by visually impaired voters. Mail-in and absentee ballots would still be accepted 35 days before an election.

The 2002 Help America Vote Act requires the Automark voting machines to be at precincts to assist voters with disabilities in casting their ballots privately.

Nebraskans for Civic Reform filed a complaint with the secretary of state on behalf of a blind woman after she was unable to vote because the machines weren't set up two days after early voting polls opened last year in Lincoln. The woman, Fatos Floyd, said Lautenbaugh's solution is not what she had in mind. She opposes the bill and said she doesn't want others to lose early voting days because of her complaint.

"For me as a blind person, it is a big deal," Floyd said. "If there is a right and we don't fight for it, our rights will be eroded."

Election officials argued in support of the bill at a committee hearing in February, saying they don't have enough time between the Sept. 15 deadline for ballot certification and the start of early voting on Oct. 1 to program the Automark machines.

Lautenbaugh said Wednesday that Automark machines have to be programed with the paper ballots, which can take a long time because every county has a different ballot. He said 25 days of early voting is still above the national average, which is 22 days.

"This is a common-sense solution to avoid an allegedly discriminatory situation," he said.

But several lawmakers said moving the date back 10 days isn't the best solution.

Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber suggested changing the ballot certification dates, negotiating with the company to finish programing the voting machines earlier or working with a different voting machine manufacturer. He said the senators try to get more people to vote, but then pass laws that make it harder.

"Just take away 10 days doesn't feel right to me," he said. "I think there has to be a different way to go about it."

Lawmakers are schedule to continue debating the bill Thursday afternoon.