LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale announced Monday that he will not seek re-election in 2018, ending a career that focused on expanding voter participation and upgrading election equipment.

Gale has served as the state's top elections official since 2000, when he was appointed by then-Gov. Mike Johanns. His decision sets the stage for a potentially competitive race to replace him.

"Being Secretary of State has been one of the most fulfilling, exciting and memorable experiences of my career," Gale said in a statement. "I feel very lucky to have been able to offer my public service as a constitutional officer to Nebraska and its citizens."

Gale, a Republican, spent much of his tenure working to expand ballot access through early voting and voting by mail, although he has supported controversial bills to require that voters show a government-issued ID at polling sites. In 2015, his office launched an online voter registration system.

He also took steps to upgrade online services for businesses, banks and other financial institutions that have to register with his office.

Gale replaced Scott Moore as secretary of state in 2000 and was first elected to the office in 2002.

The 76-year-old practiced law in North Platte for 29 years before taking his current job. He also worked as a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Roman Hruska in Washington and an assistant U.S. attorney in Nebraska.

Gale's announcement could draw a large field of Republican and Democratic candidates to fill his job. The potential Republican contenders include state Sen. John Murante of Gretna and Bob Evnen, a Lincoln attorney.

The Democratic slate could include state Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, Lincoln City Councilwoman Jane Raybould, Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers of Omaha and Katie Weitz, the director of an Omaha-based nonprofit.

Murante said he was giving "serious consideration" to running for the office, but added that he has no timeline for deciding and still needs to discuss it with his family. The 35-year-old serves as chairman of a committee that oversees state election policy.

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"Right now I'm trying to figure out where I can best serve," said Murante, whose term in the Legislature expires in 2020.

Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill, another lawmaker who has been considered a possible contender, said Monday that he has no plans to run.

Gale's announcement prompted statements of praise from some of the state's top elected officials.

"Over his many years of public service as one of Nebraska's constitutional officers, Secretary of State John Gale has been steadfast in his pursuit of transparent elections," said U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse. "Nebraskans across our state thank Secretary Gale for his outstanding work and unquestionable character."

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