Record-breaking primary shows the power of vote-by-mail

County election officials showed May 12 that it's possible to conduct Nebraska elections on a large scale with the vote-by-mail standard.

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Thanks to record-shattering vote-by-mail participation, Nebraskans set a new standard for primary election voting this spring.

Election officials received more than 400,000 completed early mail-in ballots for the 2020 Nebraska Primary. Coupled with day-of in-person voting – conducted May 12 amid physical distancing, mask-wearing, and regular sanitizing – the total number of Nebraska voters surged to an all-time high of 471,434.  The previous high was 413,015 in 1972.

By comparison, 313,000 ballots were cast in the May 2016 primary.

The massive vote-by-mail effort, which Civic Nebraska joined state election officials to promote, reduced strain on the state’s polling sites. Many of those precincts were staffed with first-time poll workers in relief of older colleagues who were most at risk of contracting COVID-19.

More participation in elections is good for democracy, said John Cartier, Civic Nebraska’s director of voting rights. The 2020 primary election highlighted the simplicity, security, and convenience of early mail-in voting.

“The big winner tonight is vote-by-mail,” Cartier said. “We saw this past month that vote-by-mail is cost-effective, dramatically increases participation, and provides voters more time to study their ballots and get answers to their questions. County election officials have shown it is possible to conduct Nebraska elections on a large scale with the vote-by-mail standard.”

Civic Nebraska’s volunteer election observers and callers to its Election Protection Hotline reported light attendance at precincts around Omaha, Lincoln, and Greater Nebraska throughout the day, with small upticks at noon, 5 p.m., and as polls closed at 8 p.m. CDT.

Several queries to Civic Nebraska’s Election Protection Hotline involved voters needing help locating their polling place. To protect voters and poll workers, several counties consolidated polling places.

Civic Nebraska Deputy Executive Director Amanda Barker, who volunteered at a central Lincoln polling place Tuesday, sanitizes a voting booth between uses. (Kylie Graham, Civic Nebraska)

Also:

> Predictably, several hotline calls were coronavirus-related. Adams County poll-goers reported police officers and vehicles parked directly outside polling locations, and members of the Nebraska National Guard were in hazmat suits conducting free COVID drive-up testing right next to a polling place. Concerns also were relayed from Box Butte County about some poll workers not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).

> There were early reports of poll workers incorrectly telling some nonpartisan voters that they could not receive a Democratic nonpartisan ballot. In Nebraska’s primaries, registered nonpartisans can also cast votes for Democrats, Republicans, or Libertarians. To do so, nonpartisans must request a nonpartisan Democratic, nonpartisan Republican, or nonpartisan Libertarian ballot at their polling station.

> There were two separate reports of poll workers who asked voters for identification before presenting them their ballot, which is not allowed at Nebraska polling sites. One voter in Saline County and one voter in Franklin County each said they were asked to show ID. Civic Nebraska alerted both counties’ election commissioners to the concern.

Other than those instances, Election Day around the state proceeded smoothly and safely, Cartier said.

This is the fifth election cycle for Civic Nebraska’s Election Protection Program observation program. Civic Nebraska will release a full report from the primary election once it compiles all information from precincts and the hotline.

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