The author is the executive director and founder of Nebraskans for Civic Reform.
Accountability and transparency are critical to ensuring confidence in a representative democracy's electoral process. State Sen. Sara Howard's Legislative Bill 235 provides precisely that.
LB 235 would require public notice and hearings on any future polling place closures or precinct redistricting, require that a community advisory committee to the election commissioner be appointed in counties with populations above 100,000, and restore the previous precinct sizes prior to the 2010 redistricting.
Currently, election commissioners in counties with populations above 100,000 are appointed by the governor without any input from the county's residents or elected officials. This appointed official administers the county's elections and hires staff, with budget and salary paid entirely by the county.
However, in 2012 when working with the community to find solutions to polling place closures, myself and others were stunned to find that the election commissioner was not accountable to the county commissioners or secretary of state (the chief election officer) and only nominally accountable (by virtue of appointment and reappointment) to the governor.
Given the lack of accountability of election commissioners to the public or the state's elected officials, common-sense measures to ensure transparency and communication with the public in matters concerning administration of our elections are necessary.
LB 235 is a reasonable and measured step in the right direction. After closing over one-third of the polling places in Douglas County, Election Commissioner Dave Phipps noted that he should have communicated better with the community and received feedback and input before making a decision.
Requiring the appointment of a permanent community advisory committee to election commissioners in counties of more than 100,000 (Douglas, Lancaster, and Sarpy Counties) would ensure that the lines of communication always remain open. Problems such as lack of public transportation and senior citizen mobility issues could have been avoided had an advisory committee been in place.
Accessibility to elections and polling locations matters. Before polling places are closed, the citizens affected should be made aware of any potential changes before they are finalized and be allowed to provide feedback and comment.
Public notice and comment are required on a wide variety of important and even mundane matters affecting the public. It is only common sense that in matters affecting the accessibility of the democratic process, the public has reasonable notice and opportunity to provide input.
Finally, the Legislature in 2011 passed LB 449, which allowed for the drastic reduction of polling locations by increasing the maximum population allowed in each precinct. A serious discussion needs to take place on what is the appropriate number of citizens that a polling location serves.
Commissioner Phipps noted that voting by mail is increasingly popular, and Nebraskans for Civic Reform supports all vote by mail elections. However, until Nebraska decides to move in that direction, the accessibility of our current polling places is critical to ensuring equal access to our elections for all Nebraskans.
The recent events surrounding elections in Douglas County highlight the need for reasonable election reform. Providing the public in our largest counties with more transparency and a voice in the administration of our elections is long overdue.