Ballots election commissioner

Outside the Douglas County Election Commissioner’s Office, warehouse supervisor Jeff Hatch, left, and assistant Jess Eikenhorst take in midday ballots on primary election day in Omaha in April 2017.

This spring, in a single Nebraska county, a whopping 59 percent of registered voters actually voted in the primary election. In the rest of the state, fewer than a quarter of registered voters did so.

We should pay attention to the difference between Garden County and the rest of us. We should pay attention because it’s a government success story — yes, those still happen — and a tantalizing path forward for the Cornhusker State.

So, how did Garden County do it? Did it crush the state average and more than double its own 2014 primary turnout by mounting a costly get-out-the-vote effort? Did a heated race for local dogcatcher galvanize the voting public?

Nope.

The only thing that changed is that Garden County changed the way it voted.

Instead of going to the polls on Election Day, every registered voter in this rural western Nebraska county 350 miles from Omaha received a ballot in the mail.

The turnout more than doubled the state average because Garden County residents all voted from the comfort of their homes.

“It exceeded all our expectations,” says Mindy Santero, Garden County’s deputy clerk and incoming county clerk.

“I think it’s a fabulous story,” says Secretary of State John Gale. “This is what democracy is all about.”

Every election cycle, the federal government, state governments and nonpartisan groups spend millions of dollars urging citizens to vote. Then, afterward, we spend time gnashing our teeth when many citizens (again) do not vote.

But there’s a growing body of evidence, both in Nebraska and around the country, that there’s a relatively painless way to change: Get the mailman involved.

Republicans and Democrats, women and men, young and old, rural and urban — one thing uniting us is that we vote at much greater rates when the ballot appears in our mailbox.

[Read more: 2018 election guide]

Yes, in a totally “vote-by-mail” county, you lose the ability to walk into your polling place and cast a ballot the time-honored way.

But here’s what you gain:

Voting by mail often leads to higher turnout. States that use vote-by-mail boasted a much higher turnout of registered voters in the 2016 general election, according to data compiled by a federal election agency. The difference was even greater between vote-by-mail states and other states during the 2018 primaries.

Vote-by-mail usually saves counties and the state money — a lot of money in the long term. And, some experts say, it’s a more secure way to vote, too.

“What a concept. Make voting easier and more people will do it,” jokes John Cartier, director of voting rights for Civic Nebraska, a voting-rights advocacy organization.

Garden County became the first Nebraska county to go totally vote-by-mail this spring, though state law has allowed it in rural counties and in big-city special elections for years.

Initially, there was some worry in the county. Would the postal service lose ballots? Would voting by mail make it easier to vote fraudulently?

County election officials worked to quell those fears as the election neared. They advertised the new voting method in local newspapers. They walked wary citizens through the process, explaining the signature-based recognition system during which county officials compare your John Hancock to your signature they have on file to make sure that you are you.

“There’s actually a voter fraud detection built into mail-in ballots,” Gale, the secretary of state, who oversees voting in the state, told me. “There’s that security benefit that people don’t realize exists.”

In a lovable small-town twist, Garden County officials even had a local welder weld a drop box and then commissioned a local art class to paint it. They mounted the drop box on the side of the courthouse, and a third of all voters — possibly wary of the postman — dropped their sealed mail ballot in there before or on Election Day.

By election night, it had become clear that Garden County had made a fantastic decision.

For the first time, no one had to beg people to be poll workers, or lug counting equipment to far-flung polling places. The county purged 100 voters from the rolls after learning during the ballot-sending process that these voters had moved from the county — another win for those worried about election security.

Voters didn’t have to drive 20 miles on muddy roads to cast a ballot. They didn’t have to request a ballot either, like you must in Omaha if you want to vote early or absentee, though that process has gotten much easier this year.

Instead, in Garden County, the ballots simply arrived in registered voters’ mailboxes weeks before Election Day.

And because all the sealed ballots were sitting at the courthouse by Election Day, all county elections officials had to do was unseal and count quickly with one machine when the polls closed.

The prospects of expanded vote-by-mail seem increasingly tantalizing to pretty much everyone paying attention.

Four rural Nebraska counties are going all vote-by-mail for the November general election. A dozen others are using mail voting in isolated precincts inside their counties, eliminating long drives to the ballot box.

And, while Omaha and Lincoln cannot yet consider going to this voting method — state law currently allows it only for primary and general elections in counties smaller than 10,000 people — both cities are getting used to it as they increasingly go vote-by-mail for bond issues or other special elections.

Gale can envision a few barriers to voting by mail in bigger cities, including much more legwork to ensure that all registered voters get ballots.

But he also pointed out that Nebraska lawmakers face a looming decision next year on whether to replace or repair aging and costly vote-counting equipment in counties all over the state.

It would seem a perfect time to encourage more counties to replace their counting equipment with a cheaper vote-by-mail system.

And it seems a perfect time to look at Garden County’s success story and ask ourselves and our lawmakers two questions:

  • At some point in the future, should Nebraska become a vote-by-mail state?
  • Do we actually want more Nebraskans to vote?

If the answer to that second question is yes, then the answer to that first question seems clear, too.

“If they can do it in Denver, I think Omaha can probably do it, too,” says Cartier, of the voting rights group, mentioning the biggest city in Colorado, which, along with Washington and Oregon, are the nation’s three vote-by-mail states. Utah and California are on the way to joining them, and eight more states, including Nebraska, allow it in some counties.

“I don’t care whether you are Republican or Democrat, green or blue. This just makes a lot of sense.”

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