Thanks to our election officials, poll workers and voting rights advocates, Nebraska conducted another election with record-setting participation. All Nebraskans should be proud that we continue to raise our standards for conducting safe, accessible elections.
This year’s record-setting turnout in our primary and general elections is due in large part to the significant increase in early voting by mail. Nebraskans made informed decisions, returned their ballots when and how it was convenient, and most importantly, voted safely.
This sudden increase in the number of Nebraskans requesting a mail ballot also showed some clear areas for potential improvement. As director of public policy for Civic Nebraska, I am constantly asking one question: “Is our election system working as well as it could?” While we have much to be proud of, here are four ways Nebraska can make our early voting/vote-by-mail system even better.
1. Improve ballot tracking and curing
We can improve the security of our elections, reduce the number of rejected ballots and promote confidence in the process by improving our ballot tracking and curing systems. Counties, cities and states across the country use U.S. Postal Service intelligent mail barcodes to track mailed ballots. Voters can opt-in and be notified to receive alerts when their ballot is mailed to them, when it arrives in their mailbox, when it’s received back at the clerk/commissioner’s office and when the ballot is officially accepted.
If a ballot is rejected (probably because you forgot to sign the envelope), voters can be automatically notified with instructions of how to get their ballot counted before Election Day. This technology is also remarkably cost-effective: Ballot Scout recently quoted $7,500 for the City of Milwaukee, and between $60,000 and $70,000 for the entire state of Michigan.
2. Online ballot requests
Nebraska’s early voting process has one cumbersome and unnecessary step — the mailed ballot request form. While county officials and the Secretary of State’s Office ensured that every registered voter was mailed an absentee ballot request form during our 2020 elections to account for COVID-19 risks, this isn’t normally the case statewide. We need to simplify our ballot request process, and the best way to keep this process safe and convenient is to allow for online ballot requests.
Voters can be confident in the security of this process; online ballot requests rely on the same data-sharing and security measures as online voter registration, which Nebraska has successfully done for years. Twenty-six states have an online option for early ballot requests. Combining online ballot requests with improved ballot tracking would make Nebraska elections among the safest and most convenient in the country.
3. Give all counties equal access to vote-by-mail tools
While every Nebraska voter can vote early without excuse, not every county has equal access to the vote-by-mail toolbox. Several counties conduct “all-mail” elections, in which every registered voter is mailed a ballot that they can then return by mail, in person or in a secure drop box. This method is proven to increase participation and decrease per-voter costs.
Counties with more than 10,000 residents are prohibited by law from using this tool, even in a single precinct. This is an arbitrary distinction without a meaningful explanation. Every county clerk or election commissioner should have access to the same tools when running elections. We saw in 2020 that high levels of vote-by-mail can be successful in counties of every size. It’s time to stop arbitrarily giving full vote-by-mail access to some counties, but not to others.
4. Paid postage
This is simple — ballots should have prepaid postage. Can most of us figure out how to get a stamp or drive to a secure drop box? Sure. But the state has an obligation to provide a consistent experience for voters, regardless of geography, political affiliation, economic status and whether they have a stamp in their house. COVID-19 has emphasized the urgency of this mindset.
Some voters in May and November were literally quarantined in a house without stamps. Those are the last folks who need additional stress about how to return their ballot.
These suggestions are about security and accessibility, but they’re also about simple customer service. Interacting with our elections system should be convenient, efficient, and secure. Nebraska already has much to be proud of, but by improving our ballot tracking system, implementing a system for online ballot requests, giving counties equal access to election tools, and providing pre-paid postage on vote-by-mail envelopes, Nebraska can set the standard.
Westin Miller, of Omaha, is director of public policy at Civic Nebraska.