LINCOLN (AP) — Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale called Tuesday for a statewide expansion of all-mail voting in small precincts, saying the practice has increased turnout in rural areas where it's already in place.
Gale said he would support a change in state law that would allow counties to get rid of polling places in small, rural precincts, and conduct elections by mail. Now, counties do so only if their populations are less than 10,000.
“I think the time has come to allow that to become a statewide program, so that any county of any size can designate smaller, rural precincts for mail-in ballots,” Gale said. “In every instance where we've had that choice, the people have been very, very supportive and turnout has significantly increased.”
Gale, a Republican, made the comments as he kicked off a nine-city re-election tour at the Capitol.
Nebraska has 58 all-mail precincts out of about 1,400 statewide. Registered voters in those precincts are sent ballots by first-class mail, along with stamped return envelopes. Gale said the state should also explore the use of mail-in ballots for special candidate elections and recall votes. State law limits the practice to issue votes, such as bond referendums.
In Lincoln, Lancaster County Election Commissioner Dave Shively said all-mail elections could improve efficiency in some of the county's smallest precincts. New state legislative districts approved in 2011 have led to the formation of some precincts with fewer than 50 registered voters.
Last year, Shively said the county opened four rural polling stations for a Lincoln school board election with a candidate who was unopposed. Some rural poll workers sat for an entire day, but no one showed up to vote.
“In that case, it would be easier for us to mail those ballots than to create a polling location,” Shively said. “That's a long time for poll workers to sit there, but we have to give people the right to vote.”
Shively said mail-in voting lowers the cost per ballot in small elections, but the price increases with the number of registered voters. The cost of mail-only and regular elections becomes virtually identical once the number of registered voters reaches 3,000 to 5,000, he said.
Voters in Hamilton County, in eastern Nebraska, are required to cast ballots by mail in all but the three precincts that encompass the city of Aurora. The switch began with the 2012 primary election and has increased voter participation, said Patricia Anderson, the county clerk and election commissioner. Anderson said the change has worked well in her county, with 11 precincts and a population of about 9,100, but might not be as cost-effective in larger counties.
“It's fantastic. No hitches at all,” Anderson said. “It's actually more work for our office, but it's great if we can increase voter turnout.”
Gale said he also wants to expand online services for businesses that are required to file paperwork with the office and attract more foreign diplomats to Nebraska to promote the state.
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.