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Nebraska's 2020 pandemic election went well, but voter registration needs work, outside group says

Nebraska's 2020 pandemic election went well, but voter registration needs work, outside group says

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After Nebraska held its first-ever election with more people voting early than on Election Day, an outside group that monitors the state’s elections said voting by mail, voting early in person and voting at the polls went “remarkably well.”

Civic Nebraska found mostly typical hiccups, including Election Day voters visiting the wrong polling places. The group’s post-election report mentions, for instance, that some voters in the Omaha suburbs got confused by which of several nearby polling places was theirs.

The group enlisted observers across Nebraska and said they witnessed few problems and saw no voter intimidation. One exception: some national calls telling people to stay safe, stay home and don’t vote.

John Cartier, Civic Nebraska’s director of voting rights, celebrated that a record number of Nebraskans voted this fall: 966,920. He attributed much of that success to “great work” by state and local election officials to shift the public’s focus toward absentee and mail-in ballots because of the pandemic.

“That’s a huge reason this election went off with few or any problems,” he said.

Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen said he agreed with the report’s assessment of election officials’ performance. Sarpy County Election Commissioner Michelle Andahl said she was proud that people got to vote how they saw fit and feel confident their votes counted.

“Our frontline workers did really important work, and they did it really well,” Andahl said.

Like many voting rights groups nationally, Civic Nebraska recommended that the state embrace absentee voting and voting by mail even after vaccines have rendered COVID-19 more manageable. They suggested giving counties the option of switching to all-mail voting.

Cartier and others applauded the decision this year by state and local officials to send every registered Nebraska voter a ballot request card, calling it a positive development for participation in the democratic process.

Evnen, a Republican elected statewide by a right-leaning electorate, sent the request cards this summer after local election officials in some of the state’s most populous counties — home to Nebraska’s largest pockets of Democrats — decided to send them on their own.

Cartier said he would love to see people be able to join a statewide absentee voting list, where voters can sign up to receive an absentee ballot request form for each election. Omaha’s Douglas County has such a list. Most Nebraska counties, including Sarpy, do not.

The decision by so many Nebraskans to participate by mail and vote early in person could change the way future elections occur, because more voters learned how convenient it is, said John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Anytime people do something that may be perceived as being a little bit easier, that’s going to be difficult to say, ‘I’m going back to the old way,’” he said. “We’re probably on that slope.”

The biggest issue Civic Nebraska’s report identified concerns how best to keep the state’s voter rolls current. It centered much of its criticism on what it said were larger numbers of people voting provisionally in Nebraska than in other surrounding states, including Colorado.

It asks whether Nebraska does enough to ensure that potential voters and current voters know they can register to vote or update their registration when they change their address on their driver’s license or state ID at the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles.

Civic Nebraska, which describes itself as nonpartisan, would prefer that people be registered to vote automatically when they get a license or state ID, rather than having to specifically request to register and depend on DMV clerks to get any party or address changes right.

The report also suggested Nebraska might consider same-day registration, allowing potential voters to register to vote in-person on Election Day, which neighboring Iowa allows.

Evnen described Civic Nebraska’s recommendations as solutions in search of problems. Nebraskans “know how to register to vote” and “cast their ballots,” he said. Nearly 1 million voters did so during November’s presidential election, he said.

State political party leaders in Nebraska, including the Nebraska Democratic Party’s Jane Kleeb and the Nebraska Republican Party’s Ryan Hamilton, disagree about the need for change.

Kleeb argues expanding access to voting with additional ways to vote early or vote by mail helps people who face barriers to voting, including young people and people of color.

“As a state, we should be expanding access to voting in order to ensure democracy is representative of our entire state,” Kleeb said.

Hamilton argues that voters aren’t hurt by needing to take the initiative to find their polling place or have enough understanding to request a ballot so they can vote absentee.

“This is not expecting too much of voters,” Hamilton said. “The point of the system should be to be resistant to fraud.”

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