Paul Schumacher hears it all the time: More and more voters in Nebraska are worried about the secrecy of their ballots in the age of mail-in elections.
The angst is especially acute in small towns, where everybody knows everybody, and some voters worry that an election worker will sneak a peek at their ballot and realize they didn’t vote for their crazy brother-in-law.
“I have some people who are just outraged by the fact that they know, or think they know, their ballots are being viewed,” said Schumacher, a Republican state senator from Columbus. “In a small community, they worry that someone can see that they didn’t vote for their relative or they voted for someone in another party.”
Election officials say they neither have the time nor the inclination to look at an individual’s ballot. They’re too busy ripping open envelope after envelope. Besides, observers representing each of the state’s two major political parties are on hand to make sure everyone follows the rules, said David Phipps, Douglas County election commissioner.
“Our goal is always to get them opened and get them processed as quickly as we can,” Phipps said. “We’re not sitting around and looking for someone’s specific ballot.”
As more people choose to vote with mail-in ballots — and more Nebraska elections are handled entirely through the mail — more people are raising concerns about ballot secrecy. Mail-in elections save counties money, and are easier for people on tight schedules or who hate waiting in line on Election Day.
Last week in the Omaha area, three school bond issues were done by mail, and voters were not given the option of casting their ballot in a private booth. In some parts of Nebraska, voters have no choice but to vote by mail in every election. For example, in Stanton County, almost half of the county’s precincts have mail-in only elections.
The trend toward mail-in elections is a national phenomenon. Two states currently conduct all of their elections through the mail: Washington and Oregon.
In some states, including Iowa, such ballots come with a “secrecy sleeve,” which allows voters to tuck their ballot into a blank envelope.
“It’s not uncommon to use secrecy sleeves. They do help remove a voter’s name from the ballot,” said Wendy Underhill of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But Underhill added that a voter’s ballot can be kept confidential without a secrecy sleeve — by making sure election workers are properly trained to not look, and by using a process that would make it difficult to look.
Nebraska initially began using secrecy sleeves in the early days of mail-in ballots, but did away with them several years ago because of the cost and time it took to process the two-envelope system.
Currently in Nebraska a mail-in ballot is sealed in a signed envelope that includes the voter’s name and address on the outside. When the ballot is received, the name is processed to make sure that the voter is eligible to vote. Then, about a week before the election, workers plow through boxes of mail-in ballots, opening the envelopes and removing the ballots.
During this process, Phipps said, speed is of the essence and workers do not look at the name on the envelope.
However, Schumacher said, it’s tough to believe that no one has ever peeked at a ballot, especially if it belongs to someone well known or someone they know.
“It would be almost superhuman not to peek,” he said.
Schumacher said the solution is to require the secrecy sleeve. He has introduced legislation over the past several years to do so, but has had little success. His bills have never made it out of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, although State Sen. John Murante, who is chairman of the committee, said lawmakers plan to study the issue this summer.
One big hurdle for the bill is that county officials strongly oppose the second-envelope option, saying it’s not necessary and will cost taxpayers more money.
In Douglas County alone, officials estimated it would have cost the county’s taxpayers an extra $15,000 to $20,000 in labor, postage and printing costs in the 2012 election to include a second envelope.
And, they say, it’s not necessary.
No election worker has ever been publicly accused of looking at a person’s ballot. No one has even come up with an example or a specific allegation of that having ever occurred, said Larry Dix, executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials.
He also noted that it would be a crime — a Class 1 misdemeanor — if a person working in an election commissioner’s office looked at someone’s specific ballot.
Finally, Dix argued that Nebraska’s county election commissioners have a record of following the rules and running squeaky-clean operations, and they have earned the right to the public’s trust.
“Nebraska has a history of great elections,” Dix said. “We don’t have fraud and things going on in our state.”