A recently released opinion from the Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson places Nebraska in prime position to improve how most of its largest counties handle election duties.
Peterson wrote that the appointment of election commissioners was “constitutionally suspect.” Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen – who asked for the review – stated his intent to introduce a bill in January, when the Nebraska Legislature reconvenes, requiring all counties to elect these positions.
Come 2020, Nebraska must seize this opportunity.
Fully implementing this needed reform – one to further distance Nebraska’s elections from its political parties – may be a difficult climb before next November's vote. But it’s a mountain worth scaling.
In most Nebraska counties, this isn’t a problem. Elected officials, typically county clerks, handle election-related duties. However, seven counties – all among Nebraska’s 12 largest – have election commissioners appointed by either the governor (Lancaster, Douglas, Sarpy) or county boards (Buffalo, Cass, Hall, Platte.)
Because these offices are elected on a partisan basis, unelected appointees can potentially inject politics in a place where it least belongs – the management of elections.
If these posts are elected, voters in these seven counties will have direct say over the officials running their elections. That certainly would represent an improvement, but let us suggest yet another fix: Elect these commissioners on a nonpartisan basis, just like Nebraska does with state senators.
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Why does this matter? With the power election commissioners wield over how and where Nebraskans can vote, the position is one of great responsibility. But, if that authority is abused for political gain, it could artificially influence the results of a vote.
That mere possibility should irk Nebraskans of all political stripes.
Take the situation in the Omaha area during the 2012 primary election. Douglas County’s then-election commissioner, appointed by a Republican governor, took heat for nearly halving the number of polling places – from 352 to 186 – before later restoring 28 precincts.
Those actions drew ire because the majority of those closed or moved were primarily located in diverse neighborhoods, traditional Democratic strongholds. Throughout the process, the election commissioner defended his decision as being driven by voter turnout, not partisan chicanery.
The mere hint of impropriety cannot be allowed to taint the sanctity of Nebraska’s elections. Some parts of the political process are best to keep out of political parties’ hands. For that reason, Hansen’s idea aligns with our persistent advocacy for redistricting reform.
Given the impact election commissioners have on voting in this state, all counties should elect the officials responsible for these vital duties – and do so without party affiliation in the picture.