Who should choose election commissioners?

When Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson called the state’s method of choosing election commissioners for its most populous counties “constitutionally suspect,” he shined a light on a situation of which few people across the state were aware.

Peterson released an opinion on the issue after it was questioned by state Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln. In his opinion, he said the Nebraska Constitution requires that election commissioners and chief deputy election commissioners be elected to their positions.

Currently, in Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy counties election commissioners are appointed by the governor, as was set up by a law adopted more than a century ago. This practice raises concerns about the positions being politicized and the commissioners favoring the party of the governor who appointed them.

This issue is also important in Hall County because Hall is one of four counties with populations between 20,000 and 100,000 in which the election commissioners are appointed by the county board of supervisors. That practice also comes into question with Peterson’s statement.

Hall County Election Commissioner Tracy Overstreet was appointed by the Hall County board in October 2017 and took the position on Jan. 1, 2018.

When the previous commissioner, Dale Baker, announced she was retiring after holding the position for more than a decade, the county board sought applicants, interviewed them and decided to appoint Overstreet. That process was transparent, so the public knew how Overstreet was chosen.

The process is similar in Buffalo, Cass and Platte counties. In the state’s smaller counties, the elected county clerks also serve as the election commissioners.

Overall, elections are well run throughout Nebraska. There have been very few issues over the years. 

This is also the case in Hall County.

So the current method of choosing election commissioners has worked.

But still, election commissioners are county officials who represent the public when they’re doing their job and it is preferable for the voters of the county to have a vote on who represents them. Also, there’s a concern that the practice is not the same in each county in the state.

Peterson said he believes if the state law was challenged, the Nebraska Supreme Court would rule that the practice of appointing election commissioners is unconstitutional. Civic Nebraska, a Lincoln-based group working to promote civic involvement and protect voting rights, has said it will challenge the law if the Legislature doesn’t act.

Secretary of State Bob Evnen, on the other hand, has said there were “sound policy reasons” for the state’s decision to appoint election commissioners and he isn’t so sure the Supreme Court would call the practice unconstitutional.

Hansen has said he plans to introduce legislation during the next legislative session to change the state law and set up a process for electing all counties’ election commissioners in time for the elected officials to take office before the 2020 election.

The Nebraska Legislature should give this issue thorough consideration and determine what is best for continuing to have fair and accessible elections throughout the state.

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