Fair and honest elections are always important in a democracy. In a period of political polarization such as we are currently experiencing, conducting elections in a manner considered fair and honest by all participants is even more important. John Gale, Nebraska secretary of state, was in Grand Island March 6 and gave members of the Noon Rotary an assessment on how well Nebraska is protecting and promoting the election process.
The sanctity of the ballot box in Nebraska seems very secure under the care of Gale and his staff, and for that we are grateful. Following the very close and contested presidential election of 2000, the federal government provided $3.6 billion to the states to improve voting procedures. In Nebraska that money was used to update and standardize voting equipment across the state.
Online voter registration has been used to increase the number of Nebraskans registered to vote. The number of people casting ballots is up. Voter fraud, while investigated where merited, is essentially nonexistent in Nebraska and where identified is almost never prosecuted. He stated no instance where fraud may have influenced an election on a local or national level.
He did identify areas of concern and where improvements could be made. The monies used to update voting mechanics in Nebraska is gone and the equipment is now at least 12 years old. Voting machines are expensive and many counties, particularly those with small populations, will be unable to replace and/or update those machines without new funding sources. He predicted that up to 68 counties may have to resume hand counting ballots, a system considered much less reliable.
Given that three counties have 50 percent of Nebraska’s population, the state Legislature should address the cost of elections in small counties.
Gale also identified the problem of keeping voting rolls updated as people move from address to address both within the state and out of state. This is another area where the state Legislature may want to assist the Nebraska secretary of state with appropriate legislation.
Perhaps most importantly, Gale addressed the need to educate citizens so that they will be capable and willing voters. This responsibility falls especially on our K-12 schools and colleges. The education of young people must include a study of the structure of government, the role and limits of government in a democracy, as well as the history which has shaped our modern democracy.
It is in school that people should learn that effective democracies guarantee human rights, protect and honor separation of powers and protect freedom of speech and press. Democracies must protect religious liberty and the right to vote. Our schools — public and private — need to develop well informed independent thinkers.
Much of the emphasis in education in recent years has been in the areas of science, mathematics and technology to the exclusion of the social sciences. In Nebraska the social sciences have never been a “tested” subject area. The subject area that teaches us how to preserve and build democracy surely merits equal emphasis with any other subject area.
We live in an unusual time when those who govern us identify the free press, which keeps us informed, as an enemy. Democracy can be fragile. We must protect it!