- Associated Press - Monday, December 12, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s voting equipment is becoming outdated and needs to be replaced to ensure elections run smoothly, county officials and advocates said Monday.

Election commissioners from Douglas, Sarpy, Lancaster and Hall counties raised the concern in a legislative hearing but told lawmakers they’re waiting until Nebraska officials decide whether to switch to statewide mail-in voting.

Nebraska’s election system faces challenges because many of the state’s smallest counties can’t afford the technology upgrades. Some county voting machines rely on antiquated technology, such as 1990s-era Zip drives, to help tabulate votes.

Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse said one of the machines in his office stopped working on election night 2016, and others experienced problems. Kruse said his county’s commissioners generally support a switch to statewide mail-in voting, which would reduce costs and save storage space that’s required for precinct voting machines.

Sarpy County Election Commissioner Wayne Bena said lawmakers will have to act in next year’s session if they want new technology in place by the 2018 elections. Otherwise, he said counties won’t have replacement machines in place until 2020 - a presidential election year when turnout is higher and problems with the equipment are likely to have a larger impact.

Keeping the equipment up to date will help ensure “we don’t become Florida,” he said, referring to that state’s 2000 recount that determined the presidential outcome.

“We’re not in a crisis mode right now,” Bena said. “However, we are near the end of the life cycle of the equipment we currently have.”

Bena said state officials could ease the financial burden on counties by reimbursing them for the cost of placing state candidates and issues on the ballot, such as a governor’s race or a constitutional amendment.

Nebraska lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts must also weigh whether to switch to statewide mail-in ballots or to invest in new voting machines for individual precincts.

Some rural counties have already switched to mail-in voting in nearly all of their precincts. In Cherry County, state law requires voters to cast ballots by mail in 17 of its 20 precincts. Ballots have to be sent to all registered voters in the 17 mail-only precincts outside of Valentine, so roughly half of the county’s voters don’t have to request one.

Hall County Election Commissioner Dale Baker said mail-in voting plus one centralized polling site would make her job more manageable, as it would for many mid-size and smaller counties that are inundated with early ballots. Baker said election commissioners in rural areas often juggle multiple jobs, such as county clerk and treasurer.

“I can’t be everything to everybody and do it effectively,” said Baker, who is based in Grand Island.

Advocates for people with disabilities urged lawmakers to maintain some state control over the voting system so voters have equal access throughout Nebraska.

“I feel Nebraska is steps ahead of other states, but there’s more work to be done,” said Kathy Hoell, executive director of the Nebraska Statewide Independent Living Council.

Sen. John Murante of Gretna, the chairman of the special election technology committee, said he believes lawmakers need to act sooner than later, even if it means tapping the state’s rainy-day day fund.

Lawmakers will confront a projected $895 million shortfall in their upcoming budget, making it difficult to invest in new machines. In addition, Murante said a switch to mail-in balloting would need more input before lawmakers proceed.

“If we do nothing, the burden will fall to the counties that pay for it - and they’ve made it clear that will necessitate property tax increases,” Murante said. “Nobody wants that.”

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