The Omaha City Council appears poised to pass a resolution next week asking Douglas County to send all Omaha voters a ballot request card for this spring’s city elections.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, a two-term Republican who is running this year for re-election, says she won’t oppose the effort by City Councilman Chris Jerram to ask that the cards be sent widely for a third straight election.
The county on Wednesday sent the cards to all 145,000 Omaha voters who are on the county’s permanent list to receive ballot request cards before each election. The council’s proposal would encourage the county to send them to the remaining 166,000 voters.
“I do not want anybody excluded from voting,” Stothert told The World-Herald. “And everybody should have the chance to vote, especially with COVID-19.”
Stothert appears to be a favorite to keep her job this year because Republicans typically turn out at higher rates than Democrats in city elections. The mayor faces a diverse field of at least eight challengers.
But since Omaha Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 24,000 voters, any effort that encourages more people to vote is likely to turn out more Democrats than might otherwise vote, political observers say.
Jerram, a Democrat who represents south-central Omaha, said he was pleased to hear the mayor echo her campaign’s statement on a mailer sent out this week on the county’s permanent vote-by-mail request list.
Stothert’s mailer described voting early by mail in the mayor’s race as “critical.”
Before her decision, Jerram, a frequent Stothert critic, had said he would be surprised if she didn’t “enthusiastically support the resolution,” since she is “clearly dedicated to voting rights and high turnouts.”
The council likely had the votes to pass the resolution without Stothert’s support now that Democrats have a veto-proof council majority. After Colleen Brennan was sworn in as a new council member last month, Democrats now hold five of the seven seats.
The Douglas County Board also has added an agenda item for its Tuesday meeting requesting that the cards be sent.
After the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, the Douglas County Election Commission sent the cards to all voters for both the primary and general elections. But Election Commissioner Brian Kruse said this week that the cards were not needed for the 2021 city elections.
His reasoning: The county showed in 2020 that it can run socially distanced, in-person voting that reduces the risk of coronavirus transmission to voters and poll workers. And people who want to vote by mail now know how.
County Board Chairwoman Mary Ann Borgeson left the door open for the city to request that the cards be sent. Kruse verified Thursday that sending the cards to the remainder of the local electorate might cost $65,000.
The City Council proposal recommends using up to $35,000 from the city’s liability contingency funds, on top of $35,000 the city had already set aside for additional election-related expenses.
The city pays all the costs for city elections because it chooses to hold city elections on its own timelines, instead of lumping city races in with regular elections, such as the presidential election of 2020.
But the pandemic might help the city pay because it could be eligible to use federal coronavirus-relief funds to cover the card costs. The council’s draft resolution mentions seeking CARES Act or other similar funding.
The city primary is April 6. The general election is May 11. The mayor and all seven City Council seats are on the ballot in what is officially a nonpartisan election.
World-Herald Staff Writer Reece Ristau contributed to this report.