2018 turnout showed weak spots in election systems

Record-shattering voter turnout in Nebraska on Nov. 6 was a boon for democracy in the Cornhusker State. But the unprecedented wave of participation also underscored vulnerabilities in the state’s election systems – limitations that election officials can work to reform by 2020, a new Civic Nebraska report says.

The report by Civic Nebraska’s Election Protection Program, published today, notes that the 2018 general election generally went well in the state, considering that 706,652 Nebraskans cast ballots – an all-time record for a midterm election.

Civic Nebraska deployed more than 120 trained, nonpartisan election observers to various precincts across the state on Election Day. It also tracked dozens of queries and concerns via its Election Day Hotline throughout the day. Most issues, the report notes, were related to human error amid high turnout on Election Day. The full report is available here.

A substantial number of accounts indicated poll workers’ training was insufficient to handle the high volume of voters with the precision and accuracy required for elections, the report says.

Director of Voting Rights John Cartier

“By and large, Nebraska poll workers do a fantastic job. But they are human, and all humans make mistakes,” said John Cartier, director of voting rights for Civic Nebraska. “The reality of training 8,000 people to completely understand all of the finer points of election law is that it is probably impossible to do so with 100 percent accuracy. This measure of accuracy, however, is absolutely required for elections.”

Among other instances, the report notes that:

> Observers recorded dozens of instances in which voters arrived at the wrong polling location or failed to re-register after moving. This, among other factors, contributed to voters being forced to complete 10,740 provisional ballots in place of regular ballots. As a comparison, Colorado – an all-vote-by-mail state – issued about 450 provisional ballots among more than 2.3 million votes cast statewide.

> In Douglas County, reports of poll workers handing out incorrect or incomplete ballots resulted in a temporary shutdown at one polling place. There may have been a substantial number of voters who did not get to vote on all the issues in some precincts;

> There were reports of registration anomalies from Nebraskans who thought they had registered with their driver’s license application, but the registration did not appear in the voter rolls. Other voters noted that they were completely off the rolls despite having voted in the 2016 presidential election. Civic Nebraska collected and forwarded information to the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office for further investigation. No evidence exists to suggest the registration system was at fault, other than voter error; and,

>An unexpected shutdown of an essential ballot counting machine in Saunders County resulted in a delay of tabulation of the results for several hours. Meanwhile, one precinct in Saline County experienced a tabulation error that resulted in votes in one precinct being at least doubled.

The report also makes several recommendations, including allowing more counties to move away from a polling-centered arrangement to an all-vote-by-mail system. All-vote-by-mail has been proven to increase efficiency, increase turnout, and more easily maintain accurate voter registration rolls. Currently, only counties with fewer than 10,000 residents can apply to hold all-vote-by-mail elections.

Other recommendations included:

> Reducing registration anomalies by examining all available procedures for Nebraskans to register, and improving voter registration at the  Department of Motor Vehicles to make it an “opt-out” system rather than the current “opt-in” system;

>Standardizing poll worker training;

> identifying and assisting precincts that need extra language assistance, and adding staff and resources at high-volume polling places to reduce wait times;

>Taking steps beyond the U.S. Mail to alert voters that polling places have changed; and,  

>Approval of Gov. Ricketts’ 2019-21 budget, which includes $12.2 million for new election equipment to replace aging technology; and,

>As a reminder to voters who encounter issues on Election Day (or any day) Civic Nebraska operates a voter protection hotline during regular business hours, every day offices are open. 402-904-5191.

Aside from Nebraska switching to an all-vote-by-mail election system like Utah’s or Colorado’s, it would be prudent for Nebraska to examine other available options for streamlining and cleaning up voter registration rolls, according to the report.

Changes to how elections are administered is the most effective way to reduce errors, clean up voter rolls, and increase turnout.

“As Nebraska looks to replace an aging elections system that is at the end of its lifespan, there is now an opportunity to critically examine the existing system to see where improvements can be made in modernization, cost savings and security,” the report says.