An influx of early ballot requests compared to past city elections could help Omaha’s upcoming primary set a voter-turnout record.
The Douglas County Election Commission mailed about 76,600 early ballots to Omaha voters ahead of the April 6 primary. That means election workers sent out nearly 18,000 more early ballots than the total number of people who voted in the 2017 primary (58,800).
“We’ve already mailed out more ballots than we had total people vote (in 2017),” said Brian Kruse, Douglas County’s election commissioner.
Thousands of Omaha voters have already cast their votes in the mayoral race and seven City Council district contests. Thousands more will do so in the coming days and on Tuesday, when polls are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Omaha’s city elections, which occur the spring after each presidential race, typically suffer from lower turnout than contests featuring higher-profile races with congressional or presidential implications.
But this isn’t a typical city election. The coronavirus pandemic has increased early voting participation nationally, and the protests and political landscape of the last year spurred higher interest in local politics.
Election Commission officials say turnout could be as high as 30%, which would easily be the highest rate in any recent city primary. The turnout of primaries in 2017, 2013, 2009, 2005 and 2001 were 20.9%; 22.8%; 19.2%, 16.6%; and 25.5%, respectively, according to data from the commission.
But the final turnout will depend on many factors.
“We just don’t know,” Kruse said.
Kruse said it’s difficult to predict the percentage of early ballots that will be returned. Nearly one-third had been sent back as of Monday. During the 2020 general presidential race, about 98% of people who received an early ballot returned it, Kruse said. He’s hopeful the figure will surpass 90%.
The number of early ballot requests is almost certainly a record. It shattered the number from 2017, when only about 12,700 people requested a mail-in ballot. About 89% of those ballots were returned. In 2013, about 91% of 7,300 early ballots came back.
Early in-person voting has been “fairly quiet,” Kruse said, but the flow of in-person voters could pick up later this week and on Saturday, when the Election Commission is open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. With spring weather in the forecast on Easter weekend, Kruse said officials will have to “wait and see.”
The city election is officially nonpartisan. The top two vote-getters in each race will advance to the May 11 general election, regardless of party affiliation.
But the race is political all the same. As of Monday, registered Democrats in Omaha outnumbered Republicans by more than 24,200.
Democrats were slightly outpacing Republicans in returning early ballots. As of Monday, the Election Commission had received 10,138 ballots from Democrats and 9,964 from Republicans. Another 3,640 came from nonpartisans, and Republicans are known to turn out in higher numbers on Election Day itself.
It’s too late to register to vote or request a mail-in ballot. Registered voters who live within the city limits can vote early in person on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday at the Election Commission, 12220 West Center Road. It is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Those planning to vote at a polling place Tuesday can go to the Election Commission’s website, votedouglascounty.com, to find their polling location.
If you’re reading this and still have a mail-in ballot, you should take it to one of Omaha’s ballot drop-box sites. Kruse said that recommendation matches one made by the U.S. Postal Service during the 2020 presidential general election, when officials asked people not to send in ballots after the Tuesday before the election.
Election workers cannot accept ballots that arrive late, even if they were postmarked before the election, Kruse said.
“They have to be in our possession by 8 p.m. Election Day,” he said.
A list of 13 drop boxes can be found on the Election Commission’s website. Click on the “Ways to Vote” tab, then “Early Voting,” to find a link to drop box locations.
Kruse also reminded people to sign the back of the envelope that came with the early ballot — the absence of a signature is the No. 1 reason ballots are tossed out, he said.
He reminded people who come to the Election Commission to vote or go to a polling location Tuesday to practice social distancing and wear a face covering.
“Please, please, if you’re coming to our office to vote early, or going to your polling place, wear a mask,” Kruse said.
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