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Nebraska voting

For years, voters in Johnson County have cast their ballots at the Catholic church in the village of St. Mary. Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt wants to expand vote-by-mail to more counties in Nebraska.

Eligible Nebraska counties have been slow to switch to conducting elections entirely by mail since state law first allowed the option in 2005.

The four counties that voted entirely by mail last November saw turnout exceeding the state turnout, however.

Garden County, the first all-mail county in the state, reported turnout of 76.5 percent, while Merrick (73.9 percent), Morrill (70.5 percent) and Dawes (62.2 percent) counties all topped the 58 percent statewide turnout in the 2018 general election.

The success of those elections may spur more of the remaining 62 eligible counties to apply to Secretary of State Bob Evnen to try the method themselves.

But state law currently excludes counties with more than 10,000 people from pursuing all-mail elections, leaving out many mid-sized counties with population centers surrounded by vast rural areas, such as Gage, Holt, Lincoln, Platte and Saline counties.

As citizens have more ways to access their elected leaders, reaching polling places via bad roads or in non-accessible buildings — as well as hiring poll workers — has grown difficult for some counties, particularly in largely rural parts of the state.

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt wants to remove what she called "an unnecessary, bureaucratic barrier," introducing a bill (LB163) that would do away with the population lid, giving election commissioners in all 93 counties more flexibility in administering elections while preserving the Secretary of State's oversight.

Caryl Guisinger, who spoke in support of Hunt's bill at a Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee hearing last week, said the successful all-mail elections have put Nebraskans who live in counties above what she called an arbitrary population lid at a disadvantage.

"When the state divides its electorate into two groups, one with a 40 to 50 percent higher ballot return rate than the other group, the Legislature is imposing an unfair division among its voters," Guisinger said.

County officials, advocates for individuals with disabilities, and voting rights organizations all lined up behind Hunt's bill.

Beth Bazyn Ferrell of the Nebraska Association of County Officials said lifting the lid would give larger-population counties the option to conduct mail elections in sparsely populated precincts, or in areas where there are no handicapped-accessible facilities within the precinct.

Nebraskans with intellectual and developmental disabilities are often excluded from participating in the democratic process because of a lack of access to the ballot, said Edison McDonald, executive director of The Arc of Nebraska, a nonprofit advocacy group.

"We believe one tool in increasing accessibility is vote-by-mail," McDonald said. "The Arc believes everyone should have access to all elections."

The permissiveness of Nebraska's all-mail election statute rests near the midpoint of states, said Westin Miller, a policy and communications associate at Civic Nebraska.

Colorado, Oregon and Washington mail ballots to all voters, while California, Utah and North Dakota allow some vote-by-mail elections. Missouri is among states that don't even allow for absentee voting, Miller said.

In Nebraska, all voters can request to receive their ballot in the mail. Those ballots come in secure envelopes and require the voter's signature in order to be counted after they are returned in the mail or dropped in a secured box.

But in vote-by-mail counties or precincts, all registered voters are sent a ballot whether or not they request one.

Along with increasing turnout, which happens across all political parties and affiliations, Miller said vote-by-mail efforts have helped counties achieve some cost savings.

Elections done by mail require fewer provisional ballots, poll workers and space to keep equipment, Civic Nebraska said in a report provided to the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee last week.

North Dakota reported a per-voter savings of 21 percent in the 35 of 53 counties where all-mail elections take place, while Colorado reported an average cost-per-voter reduction of 40 percent in its counties after switching to vote-by-mail.

Two of the Nebraska counties that have made the conversion report a per-voter cost savings in recent elections:

* Garden County saw its cost per voter drop from $19.41 in the 2014 midterm elections to $13.75 in the 2016 presidential elections, when turnout was higher. In the 2018 election cycle, Garden County's cost per voter was $13.56.

* Dawes County said its per-voter cost dropped from $3.86 in 2016 to $3.50 in 2018 — a 10 percent reduction.

There is an anticipated cost to the state, however.

The Secretary of State's office anticipates needing to hire a full-time coordinator, earning $66,846 in salary and benefits, who would be devoted to handling vote-by-mail requests, which Hunt said "came as a surprise," as a similar bill introduced in 2017 did not anticipate any added cost.

Hunt said the Secretary of State's office could choose to deny a county's request if it needed more time to build its office's infrastructure.

"We've got to give them a right to customize their elections and have that local control," Hunt said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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