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Civic Nebraska supports Hall Co. challenge to appointing election commissioners

Asserting that voters have the right to directly decide how their elections are run, Civic Nebraska is supporting a Hall County resident’s lawsuit challenging a state law that allows county boards in some Nebraska counties to appoint election commissioners.

The complaint – the second to challenge the practice – was filed Dec. 5 by Judith Vohland of Grand Island in Hall County District Court. The legal action asserts the state Constitution requires county election commissioners to be directly elected by their county’s voters.

“At its core, this is about voters’ constitutional right to choose who runs their elections,” said John Cartier, Civic Nebraska’s director of voting rights. “Local control is a bedrock value in Nebraska, and there is no more local control than returning this power back to the voters, where it belongs.”

The law in question requires Nebraska counties over a certain population threshold to allow their county boards to appoint county election commissioners. That law is currently applied in four counties in Nebraska: Hall, Buffalo, Cass, and Platte. A related, separate statute gives the governor authority to appoint election commissioners in Douglas, Lancaster, and Sarpy counties. Combined, the seven counties make up nearly two-thirds of the state’s registered voters.

Civic Nebraska has asserted that both statutes violate Article IX, Section 4 of the Nebraska Constitution, which discusses “necessary county officers” and plainly states that those officers must be chosen by voters.

Our organization also is supporting a Lincoln resident’s motion to intervene in a separate but related Lancaster County District Court lawsuit by Attorney General Doug Peterson. That lawsuit was filed in October.

Civic Nebraska raised the constitutional issues in a June letter to the attorney general. In the letter, Civic Nebraska cited two previous state attorney general opinions – from 1994 and 1996, respectively –  and established case law to justify a constitutional challenge. 

In September, Peterson issued an Attorney General’s Opinion on the matter, deeming the practice of appointments “constitutionally suspect and would, if challenged, be found unconstitutional” by the Nebraska Supreme Court.

“Despite the Attorney General’s Opinion, a real and active controversy presently exists as to the constitutionality of the law, including its application to the office of” county board-appointed election commissioners, according to the complaint. The controversy implicates the legality of actions taken by board-appointed election commissioners, the rights of voters to elect county officers, and county boards’ powers to appoint election commissioners in the future.

An explanation and timeline of the case, along with links to relevant documents, can be found by clicking here