There it is, a silver lining from societal changes made to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus: More Nebraskans appear likely to vote.
Early decisions by Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster Counties to send every registered voter an application for vote-by-mail ballots are paying off in a surge of ballot requests.
The rest of the state expects similar results after the late March announcement that every Nebraska voter will be sent a vote-by-mail application for the May 12 primary.
More than 100,000 people statewide have already requested early ballots, Secretary of State Bob Evnen said. Roughly 59,000 people voted early in each of the 2018 and 2016 primaries.
“I’m very pleased with the response,” Evnen said. “We want people to feel safe and to be safe.”
Douglas County, home to Omaha, has already received more than 80,000 of the green cards that request mail-in ballots, local officials say.
Those 80,000 requests are more people than voted locally, in person and by mail, in the 2018 gubernatorial primary (72,915) or in the 2016 presidential primary (69,676).
“We believe people are listening to our plea, our call for vote by mail,” Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse said. “And they’re responding by returning their green cards.”
Sarpy County, home to the Omaha area’s fastest-growing suburbs, including Papillion and Gretna, is also seeing a sharp increase in the number of mailed ballot requests, officials said.
They expect to mail more than 7,000 ballots on Monday, the first day ballots go out, and say they expect to have received 10,000 requests by the end of this week.
That would account for nearly half the number of people who voted in each of the 2018 and 2016 primaries, which was about 22,000, said Michelle Andahl, Sarpy County’s election commissioner.
“I think by the time this is over, more people will vote in this primary than in 2018,” she said.
Lancaster County, home to Lincoln, had received more than 27,000 vote-by-mail ballot requests by Friday.
That’s more than half the county’s total turnout in 2018 and nearly half what it had in 2016, said Dave Shively, Lancaster County election commissioner.
Evnen, Kruse, Andahl and Shively said they expect those numbers to grow in the coming days, as more people return the ballot requests.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, Evnen and others have encouraged Nebraskans to vote by mail to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19. May 1 is the last day to request a mailed ballot.
Ricketts and Evnen have said the state still plans to offer in-person voting on Election Day, but county election commissioners are scrambling to recruit enough poll workers.
Many commissioners have expressed concerns about finding replacements for many of their elderly volunteers who might be vulnerable.
Douglas County, for example, needs to staff 222 locations and 237 precincts. Coronavirus concerns have already pushed voting out of seven public housing sites and a dozen nursing homes.
Most replacement voting locations are bound for schools, which must allow voting under state law, and churches, which can volunteer to help, Kruse said.
Kruse and Evnen said the state is offering volunteers at each polling place a kit with masks, gloves, sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.
Prospective poll workers can find a registration form on election commission websites. Training for poll workers also is available online.
“Nebraskans want to know how to help,” Evnen said. “This is a really easy way to help.”
State and local Democrats have urged Nebraska officials to forgo in-person voting in May for public safety. Their aim: Move, as some rural Nebraska counties have, to vote by mail only.
Some Democrats have pushed voting by mail for years because it tends to engage a swath of the Democratic Party electorate that sits out elections. Many Republicans like it, too. State officials have said moving to vote by mail would require a change in state law.