Republican Race for the Senate: An Omaha World-Herald Debate
GOP Senate candidates Deb Fischer, Jon Bruning and Don Stenberg will come together for a debate in Omaha at 7 p.m. on May 1.
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The primary election is two weeks away, but for 6,845 Douglas County voters, it's already over.
They've mailed in or dropped off ballots before election day, a trend in the Midlands and nationally that's grown over the past three presidential election cycles — and one that election observers expect to continue.
“The convenience is very appealing to people,” Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale said Monday.
In 2008, early ballots in Nebraska represented about one in seven of the primary votes cast and more than one in five of those cast in the general election. That's up from 2004, when one in 15 primary votes cast came early and one in seven came before the general election.
The rise of early voting has changed the timing of when political campaigns engage voters. Campaigns' historic focus on getting voters to the polls also now must include strategies for identifying and getting ballots to the voters whom the individual campaigns identify as likely to support their candidate.
David Boomer, campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., said many of the changes since he joined the congressman's campaign in 2004 involve early voting. In Terry's 2008 race, Boomer said, “it took off like a rocket.”
Since early voting statewide began April 9, the Terry camp has called the Douglas and Sarpy County Election Offices daily to request the latest list of voters who have requested early ballots.
The team takes the list and sends a mailer to those voters. Early voters also receive a recorded phone call from Terry requesting their support.
“If any campaign doesn't have an early ballot program, the manager should be sued for malpractice,” Boomer said.
This year's U.S. Senate campaign by State Treasurer Don Stenberg is among those making a play for early voter support. Stenberg, a Republican making his fourth bid for Senate, has also changed the way he campaigns.
“We've got a system in place that to this degree wasn't employed as much in previous campaigns,” said Stenberg campaign spokesman Dan Parsons. “We're confident that many of these early voters are our base. They're frequent GOP primary voters, and we're going after them.”
But don't expect turnout numbers to reflect a large new crop of voters. Most of the people who request early ballots would have voted anyway, Gale said.
He is hoping for a slight turnout boost in Douglas County, where Election Commissioner Dave Phipps has taken the unusual step of sending early ballot applications to every registered voter.
Gale said he hopes the effort boosts turnout in what is typically Nebraska's least-likely-to-vote county by attracting people who might not otherwise vote.
“We may be pleasantly surprised,” he said.
Voters in many Nebraska counties, including Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster, can request an early voting ballot online. Once the ballot arrives and has been filled out, it can be mailed in or dropped off at the local election commissioner's office.
Gale said early voting, also known as absentee voting, became easier for Nebraskans in the mid-1990s, when the rules for doing it were relaxed. Before then, voters had to provide a good excuse for why they needed an early ballot, such as attending college out of state, said Randy Adkins, a University of Nebraska at Omaha political scientist.
Voters now, especially the elderly or ill, request early ballots to avoid standing in long lines on election day. Others, like Omahan Wendy Townley, say they will be out of town and don't want to miss the chance to vote.
Some, like Gov. Dave Heineman, just want to get it done. Heineman declined on Monday to reveal his picks in any of his party's contested races, particularly the Republican primary for U.S. Senate.
“Early voting used to be much more difficult,” Adkins said. “Now it's become an important part of elections.”
World-Herald staff writer Joe Duggan contributed to this report.
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