As recently as 15 years ago, 7 percent of Douglas County voters cast ballots before Election Day. By the 2016 presidential election, the number approached 34 percent.
Even primaries and off-year elections now regularly see early voting rates of at least 20 percent. This trend toward voters making decisions earlier also shows up in the vote tallies in Sarpy County, and statewide and nationally.
Such drastic change in voting behavior has shifted campaign efforts and spending earlier in the election calendar and spurred scrambles by campaigns and political parties to bank as many votes as possible before Election Day.
Campaigns are spending a higher percentage of their budgets on consultants to identify early voters and motivate them with advertisements, said Paul Landow, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Campaigns see a “fresh base of certain voters that they want to go after,” Landow said. And voters enjoy the convenience of requesting a ballot, filling it out on their own schedules at home and dropping it in the mail or a drop box.
Roberta Lange of Omaha, who picked up her ballot last Thursday at the Douglas County Election Commission Office, 225 N. 115th St., says she likes to sit down and think about her votes without feeling pressured for time.
She said she’s getting older and dislikes standing in line on Election Day. She also likes to take her time in the voting booth and worries about making other people wait. Voting early, for her, solves both problems.
“I’ve done it as long as I can remember,” Lange said, politely declining to share her age or pose for a photo. “Once I’ve done it, I know it’s over.”
Early voters in Nebraska’s most populous county, Douglas, share some traits, according to a World-Herald analysis of county election data from the most recent presidential general election and gubernatorial primary.
Women outnumbered men in both races, and they did so at more pronounced rates than they did in the elections overall. Older voters were more likely to vote early, but the average age of early voters is dropping. The average age was 65 in the 2014 primary and 54 in the 2016 general election.
Democrats voted early at much higher rates than Republicans in the 2016 general election, by nearly 7,000 votes, a margin greater than their registration advantage in Douglas County. Republicans outpaced Democrats in the 2014 primary by 2,600 early votes.
Early voters nationally pretty closely resemble the wider voting population, said John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. One key difference: Early voters increasingly tend to be younger.
Convenience is a key factor for younger people, he says, citing the experiences of college students he teaches, many of whom vote early in Nebraska or in their home states.
Voting early, by mail or in person, is pretty simple. Friday was the deadline to request that a ballot be mailed to you for the May 15 primary, but voters still can stop by their county election office to pick up a ballot and vote early in person through Monday. Or they can grab a ballot in person and return it by mail or drop box, so long as it arrives by the time the polls close on Election Day.
In-person applicants need only to say whether they want to vote at the county election office or take the ballot home. They write their name and address, fill out their ballot, sign the envelope and return it to a drop box.
Some states have made voting early even easier, research by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows. Colorado, Washington and Oregon mail a ballot automatically to every eligible voter. Florida, Louisiana, Utah, Maryland and Minnesota allow voters to register for an absentee ballot online. A handful of states, including Arizona and New Jersey, let voters join a permanent absentee voting list that makes sure they receive an absentee ballot in the mail for all elections that follow their enrollment.
Former Minnesotan Whitney Coriolan, 23, registered to vote last week in Douglas County and grabbed an early ballot while she was there. Her friend, Ayrton O’Neal, 22, of Omaha went ahead and grabbed his, too.
“I’ve just graduated college,” Coriolan said. “This is my first year as an adult, and this is a way to make sure it gets done and that I have enough time to think and research who I’m going to choose.”
The political parties are also driving changes in early voting.
The Nebraska Democratic Party, for example, is reaching out to low-turnout Democrats, voters who haven’t voted or registered since 2016, said Jacob Denniston, director of party building and communications.
Both major parties try to boost early voting among their partisans and reach out to nonpartisan voters they think might be open to their candidates, said Kenny Zoeller, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party.
Public records from the Secretary of State’s Office help parties and political candidates identify who has requested an early ballot and tell them whether someone has voted by returning their ballot, Landow said.
Those who request a ballot but wait awhile to return it often become targets of campaign calls, door-to-door campaigning and direct mail, he said. That helps campaigns amplify the attention they give likely voters.
Experts disagree about where a ceiling for early voting participation might be, but Hibbing says presidential-race voters nationally in 2012 and 2016 settled around 40 percent early votes after years of significant increases.
“At some point, you’ll have reached everyone who cares to vote that way,” said Landow, who worked for the state Democratic Party and as chief of staff to Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey and U.S. Rep. Peter Hoagland.
But Douglas County doesn’t seem to have reached the end of early voting growth, said Brian Kruse, the County Election Commissioner. Nor has Nebraska, Secretary of State John Gale said.
As of Tuesday morning, 44,000 Nebraskans had voted early, including 38,000 who had returned ballots by mail and 6,000 others who voted in person at a county election office, state figures show.
Jon Roberts, a 69-year-old who lives in the Elkhorn area, said he drove to the election office for a ballot last week because he wants to make sure he votes, something he says too few people do.
“It should be as easy as possible for as many people as possible to vote — keep it simple, stupid,” he said. “I don’t care how I vote, just that I vote. We have the government we get because people don’t care enough to vote.
“Maybe now they will.”