Secretary of State John Gale honors Star-Herald with Civics Recognition Award
SCOTTSBLUFF – The Star-Herald welcomed a special guest Friday morning as retiring Secretary of State John Gale stopped by to present the newspaper with his office’s Civics Recognition Award.
“My office follows statewide media in terms of reporting and covering elections,” Gale said. “Print media does such a fabulous job of presenting trustworthy and extensive information on election deadlines, how to register, who are the candidates and the issues, how to vote early and a lot more.”
On Jan. 9, 2019, Gale will step down after18 years as Secretary of State and will be succeeded by Bob Evnen.
Gale shared how dramatically elections have changed since he first took office in late 2000.
The 2000 presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore became the impetus for major changes in the nation’s election laws when the Florida recount turned into what Gale called a fiasco.
“It was a catastrophic election in terms of election administration,” he said. “At the time, about 90 percent of the people didn’t believe elections could be fair and accurate. A number of national reports and studies followed suggesting ways to improve elections across the county.”
The result of those studies came in 2002, when Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. Nebraska received $21 million in funding to carry out several federal mandates. They purchased all of the state’s election equipment for every county, creating a uniform voting system.
“For the most part, elections had been left alone for the past 100 years and they were run by the counties,” Gale said. “It was a mishmash from state to state as to how elections were run, even in Nebraska, where we had eight different voter registration systems.”
Today, the state owns the entire online voter registration system with several layers of security. Since the new equipment was purchased in 2006, most state elections have run smoothly with very few glitches.
During the 2018 election, Gale reported record numbers for registration, early voting and turnout.
“It’s been an exciting 18 years to have been Secretary of State and help design that first set of choices of how we were going to vote in Nebraska,” Gale said. “I chose paper ballots because it’s the safest form of voting. And it’s gained tremendous support across the state.”
When Gale formed an election task force in 2017 to discuss the next generation of voting systems, 25 different organizations involved in the state’s voting operation all said they loved the current system, but it should be upgraded.
The task force also urged continuation of paper ballots, especially with the increasing popularity of early voting and vote-by-mail in smaller counties. But the group wants to give small counties the option to vote by mail.
“We submitted the report to the Legislature, but they’ve not be able to address it because there’s not $12 to 15 million to replace the current system,” Gale said. “We can make do with the equipment we have for another two to four years, but I think the next Legislature will take up the question of what should be done and whether it should be done before the 2020 Presidential election.”
He added that 48 Nebraska counties have populations of less than 10,000, allowing them to conduct countywide vote-by-mail. That option would be a substantial savings because voting equipment for every precinct would be unnecessary, along with the cost of hiring poll workers from both political parties.
Gale said there are advantages to vote-by-mail because of lower costs and, more importantly, higher voter participation.
“My goal, passionately, for 18 years, has been to work with my partners in the media and political organizations to improve that voter turnout,” he said. “I think that with vote-by-mail, we’re seeing a change in the arc of election history. But I’ll be interested to see what happens.”