Nebraska Politics

Meet Your New Secretary of State, Selected by Ricketts

When it comes to the least visible of the Constitutional officers of their state, Nebraskans can be forgiven for not knowing two things:

  1. What their Secretary of State does, and
  2. Who their new Secretary of State will be.

For the past several years, the identity of the Nebraska Secretary of State might not have seemed incredibly important, because the impact of that office wasn’t immediately obvious to the average citizen. That doesn’t mean that the current Secretary, John Gale, wasn’t impacting your life. In fact, you can be assured that he was, because Gale’s office administers elections and keeps government records. In his nearly 20 years in office, Gale brought Nebraska’s voting infrastructure into the 21st Century and worked diligently to increase voter participation. Most recently, Gale demonstrated a devotion to Nebraskans’ privacy by ultimately denying a request for voter data from President Trump’s dubious–and now defunct–Election Integrity Commission, because its processes and procedures failed to meet requirements set out in Nebraska law.

But Gale is stepping down and his successor has already been chosen, not by voters but by Governor Pete Ricketts. So, who’s your new Secretary of State? It’s Robert Evnen, a Lincoln attorney whose only previous political experience came when he was appointed to the State Board of Education, and who was immediately endorsed by every heavyweight in the Nebraska Republican political establishment. In eight years on the Board of Education, Evnen claims credit for helping to adopt “a rule providing the opportunity for students to recite the pledge of allegiance every day” and “a Statement of Purpose for the Board’s social studies standards, which includes this: ‘The purpose of the Nebraska Social Studies Standards is to teach our children to become young patriots who have an intellectual understanding of the genius of our country’s founding principles and who feel an emotional connection to our nation.’”

But Evnen’s name might be more familiar to Nebraskans thanks to the statewide speaking tour he conducted in 2016 on behalf of Governor Ricketts’s personally-financed death penalty referendum. In 2015, when Ricketts failed to successfully lobby the legislature’s conservatives to stick with a capital punishment system that was fundamentally broken and that clashed with their pro-life views, and then when the legislature successfully overrode Ricketts’ veto of the death penalty repeal bill, Evnen was one of a tiny handful of staunch Nebraska Republicans to prominently back Ricketts’ effort to overturn the legislature’s vote. Not only did Evnen make a name for himself as an aggressive proponent of killing people, he also earned a whole lot of Pete Ricketts’s goodwill. In fact, in 2016, Pete Ricketts was the largest non-family donor to Robert Evnen’s campaign, matching the $5,000 donation made by Evnen’s father.

Of course, one additional responsibility of the Secretary of State is to serve as one of three people on the Board of Pardons, along with the Governor and the Attorney General. During the death penalty referendum, Evnen frightened Nebraskans into believing that repealing the death penalty would mean serial killers roaming their neighborhoods because of the pardoning power enshrined in the state constitution. Luckily, with Evnen as Secretary of State, there’s little chance of anyone being pardoned … just as was the case over the past quarter century when the Pardons Board issued a whopping 3 pardons.

But Evnen’s position on the virtues of judicial killing isn’t the area in which he’ll have the greatest impact on Nebraskans. That’s going to be making it more difficult for them to vote, which is really the centerpiece of his platform:

Do you agree with me that only citizens should be eligible to vote? Not everyone does. There are those in our country and our state who seem want to allow non-citizens to vote. I will review our registration procedures to assure that we have independent verification of citizenship status. I support Voter ID measures that do not impose an undue burden on voters.

I oppose so-called “automatic” voter registration. Requiring the small amount of effort that it takes to register to vote means that the citizen who registers cares enough to participate. We can make it as easy as to register as it is to buy a lottery ticket, but that won’t increase meaningful participation in voting. Then, too, we must be cautious at all points to assure that only U.S. citizens who are Nebraska residents are registering to vote.

Evnen wants voting to be considered a privilege, rather than the right that it is. He wants to make it more difficult for people to register and to actually cast a ballot, rather than easier. And he dresses up that position in the rhetoric popularized by people like Kris Kobach, President Trump’s extremist voter fraud champion, even though there is absolutely no data to support the idea that non-citizens are voting in Nebraska. Indeed, Trump’s voter fraud commission was shut down earlier this month without finding any evidence whatsoever of the widespread fraud that Trump and Kobach repeatedly claimed. Evnen himself notes that “The time to address this problem is before it occurs. As Secretary of State, I will work to assure that our elections remain fair and secure.” In other words, there is no problem, but we’re all going to act as though there’s a massive problem in need of extremist solutions.

What will ultimately happen as a result of Evnen’s proposals is that low-income Nebraskans, students, the elderly, and minority voters will have a more difficult time exercising their right to vote, which is a longstanding goal of the Republican party nationally.

With the state grappling with a massive budget shortfall, Evnen’s proposals to combat a problem he admits doesn’t exist are likely to waste a good deal of money that could be spent on actual problems like prison overcrowding (currently at 156% of capacity) and overall corrections reform, something that Evnen (as someone who constantly touts his advocacy of public safety) surely recognizes as a more immediate issue than imaginary election fraud.