LINCOLN, Neb. – This National Voter Registration Day, Nebraskans have something to celebrate. Tens of thousands of Nebraskans are benefiting from streamlined voter registration processes that resulted from an ACLU push to ensure compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).
The project recently wrapped up. It began in 2019 with a public records investigation. Through a series of public records requests, attorneys with the ACLU’s national office and the ACLU of Nebraska discovered three state agencies were violating the NVRA and generally not meeting best practices.
Among other provisions, the NVRA requires state DMVs and state agencies that provide public assistance to also perform basic voter registration services. Before the ACLU took concerns to the Nebraska Secretary of State, people who were using some Nebraska Department of Education (DOE), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) services were effectively being denied a legally required opportunity to register to vote or update their voter registration.
Among the now resolved concerns:
- DHHS’ Medicaid program’s initial application did not contain any questions about voter registration, nor did its paper renewal form.
- DHHS did not provide guidance to employees covering phone Medicaid services on how to provide voter registration services.
- DHHS was not providing any clients with information about using Nebraska’s online voter registration system.
- DHHS’ ACCESSNebraska did not provide any voter registration services during change of address transactions.
- A voter registration opportunity was not provided in ACCESSNebraska until after a transaction was completed, where it could be easily missed by clients.
- Clients using ACCESSNebraska were only provided a pdf of a voter registration form, requiring access to a printer, as opposed to receiving a paper voter registration application in the mail from DHHS when they wanted to register to vote.
- No transactions on DHHS’ ACCESSNebraska, including initial application, renewals or certification, provided the required NVRA disclosures. Additionally these disclosures were also missing from DHHS’ paper benefits application forms.
- DHHS training materials instructed employees to tell applicants for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) that they may take a voter registration form and fill it out at home, omitting that applicants could also fill out the form in the office and submit it for DHHS to mail.
- The DOE Vocational Rehabilitation program application did not provide required disclosures under the NVRA. DOE also did not have robust written procedures about voter registration.
- DMV was requiring individuals changing their address to take affirmative additional steps to also update their voter registration address. Under the NVRA, address updates reported to the DMV should be automatic for all registered voters who do not opt-out.
- DMV driver’s license forms, including renewal and change of address forms, did not provide disclosures required under the NVRA, including one explaining that an applicant’s decision to register to vote and their voter registration application will be confidential.
Once alerted to the violations, the Secretary of State’s Office began working with the agencies to remedy the situation. Just the improvements in 2020 to the DMV change of address process made a significant improvement. Because of the new process, more than 37,000 Nebraskans had their voter registration address updated before the November 2020 general election. In Douglas County, 40% of these individuals were previously inactive voters. The change not only helped registered voters have easier access to voting but also helped election officials maintain more accurate voter registration rolls.
ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad said that although some concerns remain with implementation two years after initial concerns were raised, Nebraskans can rest easier knowing significant voter registration improvements are in place.
“While we would have preferred state election officials and other state agencies working more quickly to address these voting law violations, we are thankful our work has strengthened voting rights in Nebraska,” Conrad said. “Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, which is why it’s so important that registration is accessible to all of us and especially to those Nebraskans who are already facing obstacles of economic hardship.”
Sarah Brannon, managing attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project, said she was pleased that Nebraska will no longer deny Nebraskans this federally mandated opportunity to register to vote.
“The voters who are benefiting most from these changes often face high barriers to register to vote,” Brannon said. “That’s why low-income voters, people of color and people with disabilities are already underrepresented in the electorate and it’s also why these touchpoints at state agencies matter. By complying with the law, officials will now help counteract these disparities and better enable all eligible Nebraskans to be heard.”
The ACLU works to protect and expand Americans’ freedom to vote by challenging barriers to the ballot box proposed by the legislature and communities, educating the public about their rights and ensuring all candidates and ballot committees have a fair shot. In Nebraska, that work has recently involved educating the public on the redistricting process, defending the voting rights of Nebraskans with past criminal system involvement and mailing thousands of early voting application forms ahead of municipal elections after county election officials failed to do so.