Strengthening Democracy redux: Bonus Q&A

Our May 14 interactive live-stream with Amber McReynolds was such a hit that we ran out of time to answer all of your questions. We're addressing that with this wrap-up Q&A.

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Question:
Election officials in Nebraska have now used email to sign up voters to vote-by-mail. Do you see a future for vote by email to increase access?

Westin Miller, Civic Nebraska Director of Public Policy:
I can’t imagine voting by e-mail will ever be an election standard in the United States. It’s great for ballot requests, because you get all of the accessibility without any of the security risks. There’s too much evidence that malicious actors have and will again try to interfere with the digital security of our elections. I know that other forms of electronic voting involve entirely new levels of security (not going to pretend to be a blockchain expert), so we’ll have to wait and see how that conversation evolves. Regardless of how our primary voting method evolves, it is essential that we always have an auditable paper trail. 

Question:
I found it strange that vote-by-mail in Nebraska didn’t have pre-paid postage. Do you see that as a barrier or something worth advocating for? 

Westin Miller:
Pre-paid postage is certainly worth advocating for, and it’s standard practice in a number of red, blue, and purple states, including three of our neighbors (Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri). It’s usually done with business reply mailing, so that election officials only have to pay for ballots that are actually returned by mail. 

Providing pre-paid postage would, of course, require a lot of money, which makes any legislation requiring such a move very difficult, especially right now. But the fact that the state just purchased secure dropboxes for every county that didn’t have one helps mitigate some of the barriers created by lack of postage. 

Ultimately, we want to see elections in which no one is unable to vote due to a lack of resources (money, time, stamps during a pandemic). Pre-paid postage would be a good step in that direction. 

Question:
Who makes the decision to mail ballots to all registered voters? Why do only some counties do it?

Westin Miller:
A good question with a weird answer. For the 63 Nebraska counties with fewer than 10,000 residents, the county gets to make their own decision, with the Secretary of State’s approval. The county clerk submits a plan to make the switch to a VBM standard in one, multiple, or all precincts in the county, and as long as the SOS approves, they can make the change. The approval is permanent, but the county can choose to change their minds later. 

For counties with more than 10,000 residents, this option is not available. Counties aren’t even allowed to submit an application to the secretary of state for a single precinct. Why? Not sure. The way the laws were first written in 2005, VBM was the exception, not the rule. Nobody even considered the possibility of using VBM as the standard way of conducting elections. We originally only allowed applications from counties with <7,000 residents, because polling places were miles and miles away from residents and becoming impossible to staff. Now that VBM is proven to be a useful option for counties of all sizes, we just need to overcome the power of status quo to make the legislative change. Civic Nebraska supports giving every county the same ability to at least submit an application for one or multiple precincts.

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