Nebraska Primary Voting (copy)

Adam Rokes of Omaha fills out a ballot at St. Leo Catholic Church in Omaha on Tuesday.

The writer, of Omaha, is the director of public policy for Civic Nebraska.

Despite intimidating and politically charged circumstances, Nebraskans not only conducted a crisis-free primary election — we shattered participation records. A standard-setting 471,434 Nebraskans voted in the May 12 primary, more than 400,000 of whom voted early and returned their ballots mostly by mail or in secure drop boxes.

The April 7 primary disaster in Wisconsin and the primary success in Nebraska tell the tale of two extremes — what happens when your leadership is neither unified nor prepared, and what happens when careful preparation, meaningful collaboration and sensible, nonpartisan policy decisions rule the day.

I could not be prouder of our state’s election stakeholders. Political pressures, public health concerns and the Wisconsin debacle all put tremendous pressure on our decision-makers. They all rose admirably to the challenge.

First, Gov. Pete Ricketts and Secretary of State Bob Evnen decided early that our election would occur May 12. While this decision’s finality was frustrating to some, it provided a clear framework within which we could work to conduct the best election possible. Secretary Evnen and his team also quickly made important decisions to encourage Nebraskans to vote by mail. County officials and the secretary of state’s office worked together to ensure every county had a secure drop-box for ballot delivery, every county mailed early voting applications to every registered voter in the state, the state bought backup vote-by-mail envelopes for counties to draw from, and the state actively encouraged Nebraskans to vote early.

The communication between the executive branch, the Legislature and advocacy groups was tremendous. Deputy Secretary of State for Elections Wayne Bena showed strong leadership, convening stakeholders of all kinds to keep us informed, solicit feedback and collaboratively make decisions that contributed to the success of this election. One was the suspension of in-person early voting for the primary. It was a decision nobody was excited to make. Bena facilitated a call with county officials, political parties and advocacy groups to ask for feedback, and it was nearly unanimous to protect the health of county employees, who are indispensable in running our elections.

The Legislature, despite being adjourned, also stepped up to promote vote-by-mail. Many senators and candidates spent time and energy encouraging voters to vote by mail, including two bipartisan opinion columns, one by Omaha senators, another by Lincoln senators.

The heroes of every election — county election officials — stepped up in an unprecedented fashion to encourage early voting, maintain public trust in a potentially stressful election and recruit poll workers for Election Day. The Nebraska Association of County Officials was, as usual, responsive and reliable in advocating for the needs of county election administrators to ensure a smooth election.

Advocacy groups like Civic Nebraska, Heartland Workers Center, the League of Women Voters, and ACLU of Nebraska all focused our energy productively on encouraging Nebraskans to vote early.

As a voting rights advocate, I’d like to see 100% of registered voters in Nebraska receive their ballot by mail and have the choice to return it in person, by mail, or in a secure drop-box. This is an option already available to Nebraska counties with fewer than 10,000 residents and has been proven in Nebraska and in other states like Utah and Colorado to increase turnout, save money, and provide an excellent voter experience. But successfully achieving that goal statewide requires careful planning and infrastructure building, not making a dramatic change a month before the primary during a pandemic, as some were demanding.

I am thrilled with the way our executive branch, Legislature, county officials and advocacy groups collaborated to show the nation how a successful primary election can be done during a public health crisis. It’s an honor to work with such a dedicated group of election officials, and I look forward to working with them to make future elections even more successful.

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