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Nebraska's largest counties will mail ballot request forms to every voter. Will state do the same?

Nebraska's largest counties will mail ballot request forms to every voter. Will state do the same?

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The number of Nebraskans voting in May’s primary smashed records, thanks to mail-in voting. Now, some counties are making a renewed push for voting by mail in the general election by sending ballot request forms to all of their voters.

But the forms might not be sent statewide.

Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen told The World-Herald last week that he hasn’t decided whether to send ballot request cards for this fall’s general election. His office sent postcards ahead of the primary, after several counties announced their own plans to do so because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

For the general election, he said he encourages anybody who wants an early ballot to request one from local election officials or to download the form from the secretary of state’s website.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, through a spokesman on Friday, said he “does not believe sending out ballot requests to everyone is needed this fall,” echoing a recent push by President Donald Trump against expanding mail-in voting.

“People who were previously unfamiliar with the process learned about it this spring and can request one now,” said Taylor Gage, the Ricketts spokesman.

Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster County election officials plan to send all of their voters postcards allowing them to request a general election ballot by mail. Those postcards will be sent out in late July or August.

Some rural counties, too, including Harlan County in far south-central Nebraska, are making a push for voting by mail in the general election. Harlan County is sending 1,000 voters ballot request cards this month, said Jessica Martin of the County Clerk’s Office.

This spring, state and local leaders’ push for early voting led a record number of Nebraska voters to participate in the primary, boosted by tens of thousands of Nebraskans voting by mail for the first time, the Secretary of State’s Office estimates. Turnout was light on primary day, with only 1 in 7 voting in person. But more than 471,000 voters cast ballots.

Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse and Sarpy County Election Commissioner Michelle Andahl said they want to be prepared in case fears of a flare-up in coronavirus cases this fall are realized. Sending the cards helps county officials plan for how many people might vote in person. Requests for mailed ballots must be received by election officials by 6 p.m. Oct. 23.

Both Douglas and Sarpy Counties sent the cards to all voters in the 2016 general election. Sarpy County sent the cards to primary and general election voters in 2012, too, Andahl said.

For the May primary, federal coronavirus relief funds paid for printing and mailing the cards in Douglas and Sarpy Counties. In Douglas County, the cost was about $100,000. The cost was $60,000 in Sarpy County.

A bipartisan majority of the Douglas County Board agrees with sending out the cards because it will help ensure that the fall election is run as safely as possible, said Mary Ann Borgeson, a Republican.

Part of doing that is giving people worried about contracting or spreading the coronavirus an alternative to voting in person, said Chris Rodgers, a Democrat.

Trump has railed against state efforts to expand access to voting by mail as an alternative to waiting in lines at polling places during a pandemic. He has argued, often without evidence, that mail-in voting will lead to fraud and warned that foreign countries could print ballots.

Many Nebraska Republicans, including those who work on GOP candidates’ vote-by-mail programs, support Nebraska’s process for voting by mail, even as they expressed reluctance to disagree publicly with Trump.

Nebraska checks voters’ signatures against the voter file and makes sure that the addresses match, the Secretary of State’s Office says. Nebraska also has 11 rural counties that vote entirely by mail.

Political observers who spoke with The World-Herald last week, including University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Paul Landow, said Evnen might soon choose to send the cards statewide because there are more Republicans in rural Nebraska who might want an easier option to vote by mail.

As it stands now, the counties sending ballot request cards have the state’s largest pockets of Democrats, Landow noted.

Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb applauded the local election commissioners. She said they are “protecting our democracy and our public health.” She called on Evnen and Ricketts to join them.

“No one should have to risk their life or a poll worker’s life in order to vote,” Kleeb said, urging the state to consider setting aside funds for each county to send out ballot request cards.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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