The strangest primary election in Nebraska history could draw the most voters ever, no matter who votes on Election Day, if people return the ballots they’re requesting by mail.
State and local leaders’ push to get people to vote by mail during a pandemic is working, Secretary of State Bob Evnen told The World-Herald.
As of Friday, an “unprecedented” 340,000 Nebraskans had requested ballots, Evnen said. Almost 50,000 more live in rural counties where voting by mail is the only option, which will push the ballot tally to 390,000.
More Nebraskans have now requested early ballots than the 313,468 who voted in the 2016 primary, a recent high-water mark.
And the numbers are closing in on Nebraska’s highest-turnout primary, 1972, when 413,015 people voted.
The number of Nebraska primary voters has topped 400,000 only five times.
In one west Omaha precinct, just west of the auto dealers near Village Pointe, No. 6-30, 335 of 871 registered voters have requested early ballots, Douglas County officials said. Only 192 people in that precinct voted in the 2018 primary.
In a southwest Papillion precinct, No. 48, 835 of 2,404 registered voters have requested early ballots, more than a third, said Sarpy County Election Commissioner Michelle Andahl. Only 624 precinct residents voted in the 2018 primary.
“What it tells me is that the mechanisms under law that we have in place today are being put to use effectively and successfully in the midst of the coronavirus event,” Evnen said.
People can request mail-in ballots from their county election officials until 6 p.m. May 1. Those ballots must be received by county election officials no later than 8 p.m. on election day, May 12. More than 72,000 Nebraskans have already voted.
Evnen recommended that Nebraskans return their ballots by mail, deposit them in county election drop boxes or hand them over to someone they know and trust.
In a typical election, about 90% of requested ballots are returned, though officials expect that number to drop a bit this year because ballot request forms were sent to every voter in the state.
Douglas County had received 123,500 requests by Friday and expected that number to top 125,000 by Monday. The county is about seven to 10 days behind in mailing out ballots, but officials are catching up as requests slow down, Election Commissioner Brian Kruse said.
Sarpy County has received roughly 30,000 requests, officials said. Lancaster County, home to Lincoln, has received at least 64,000.
Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, has said she’s encouraged and heartened by the number of people choosing to vote by mail in Nebraska.
Ryan Hamilton, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, said he was “excited and energized by the enthusiastic response” of the state’s GOP voters.
Evnen and Gov. Pete Ricketts still plan to open the polls on May 12.
Poll workers will be given personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves. People are still being recruited to serve as poll workers.
Nebraska’s Democratic Party leaders have criticized the state for holding in-person voting during a pandemic, citing the public health risk.
But Evnen said the pool of in-person primary voters is dwindling.
Fewer than 108,000 of the state’s frequent primary voters have yet to request a mailed ballot, election officials said.
Evnen expects 25% to 50% of a typical in-person primary turnout on election day.
“I’m very proud of Nebraskans right now,” he said. “We’re going to have our polls open on May 12, and Nebraskans have stood up and voted.”
Those voting in person should watch the mail over the next couple of weeks for notices because county election officials statewide have changed some polling places.
Several churches, businesses, apartments, public housing and elder care facilities have asked not to host voting sites for the May primary. Most of those polling sites are being moved to nearby existing polling places, schools or other public facilities required by law to allow voting. Others moved to businesses and churches that volunteered to serve as polling sites.
About 70 Douglas County polling sites will move or be consolidated in May. The county is reducing its number of polling sites from 222 to 200, officials said. Sarpy County relocated five of 52 polling sites.
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Most of the polling sites that Douglas County is moving are in central and west Omaha, not in east Omaha, where Democratic Party officials have expressed concerns about disenfranchising poor and minority voters, many of whom lack transportation.
In North Omaha, four sites will be moved at the request of their hosts, three from Omaha Housing Authority towers and a fourth from a church.
In South Omaha, two sites are being moved out of OHA towers, also at OHA’s request. They are being moved to neighborhood schools, including South High School.
Elizabeth Zorko, who manages polling places for the Douglas County Election Commission, said she worked to keep the new sites in east Omaha within walking distance.
There are six changes in south-central Omaha and five in the Regency area.
In southwest Omaha, six polling places were relocated — two from businesses, one from a church and three from retirement communities.
The Elkhorn area, including Bennington and Valley, saw the most changes, with 16 polling sites moved or consolidated. Elkhorn South High School will now host three precincts.
The main reason, according to Kruse and Zorko: Many churches asked not to host polling sites this cycle, prompting the move to public facilities.
Douglas County Democratic Party Chairwoman Crystal Rhoades said she has reviewed county election officials’ efforts.
“I think they did their very best to make this as good as they could under the circumstances,” she said. “I think they did a very nice job.”