Platte is one of a handful of counties in Nebraska facing some scrutiny after Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson this week called into question county officials appointing election commissioners.
In a seven-page opinion issued earlier this week, Peterson called the appointment of the position by the governor in Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy Counties, as well as county commissioner appointments in Platte, Buffalo, Cass and Hall counties, “constitutionally suspect.”
The attorney general’s opinion, provided in response to a request from Lincoln’s Sen. Matt Hansen, was regarded highly by Civic Nebraska, which has made the argument that county election officials should be elected, not appointed.
“It is our view that the statutes providing for the appointment of commissioners and chief deputy election commissioners would, if challenged, be held unconstitutional by the Nebraska Supreme Court,” the attorney general’s opinion stated.
In most Nebraska counties, the duties of an election commissioner are handled by an elected official, typically a county clerk. The seven aforementioned counties, however, have their own election commissioner since they make up the majority of the state’s voting block, current Platte County Election Commissioner Connie Sebourn said.
Hansen said he will introduce legislation next year to make the change to an elective office in all counties.
"Ideally, there would be a transition into the next election," he said, during an interview with the Telegram’s sister newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star. "But that timeline might be hard."
Hansen said he has not spoken to fellow legislators yet to gauge support for the change.
"I plan to reach out to colleagues now and hopefully we can achieve some consensus," he said.
"With the 2020 elections approaching, this matter should be addressed in a pragmatic way that will give citizens back their right to elect those who conduct elections in their counties," said John Cartier, director of voting rights for Civic Nebraska, through a provided statement.
If the Legislature fails to act, Carter said, Civic Nebraska would be prepared to legally challenge the standing of the unelected officials in a court filing.
"It has always been the right of Nebraska citizens to choose the officials who run their elections," he said. "And it is vital that all of Nebraska's elections are administered by officers that are chosen in accordance with the Nebraska Constitution."
Platte County recently had a changing of the guard on the election commissioner front. Longtime County Election Commissioner Diane Olmer stepped away from the position, handing the reins over to Sebourn on July 1 after manning the position for 23 years. She was appointed to the role by the county board.
The election commissioner is responsible for maintaining all voter registration records and conduction all primary, general and special elections, according to information provided on Platte County’s website. The office works in conjunction with the Nebraska Secretary of State’s office to ensure compliance with all state and federal election guidelines.
Should legislation pass calling for the position to be an elected one, Sebourn would have to go through the balloted process in a little more than three years.
“I would be in the market for running in an election at that point,” Sebourn said. “And that would be when Diane’s term is up in January 2023.”
She said she will take whatever decision is made in stride, and that the County Board of Supervisors will comply with whatever action – one way or the other – is taken.
“But right now, it’s business as usual at the courthouse,” Sebourn said.
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com. The Journal Star's Don Walton contributed to this story.
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