Before this month's primary election, some Garden County voters would drive upward of 40 miles one way to cast a ballot at one of the county's four precinct sites.

Election days in the sprawling western Nebraska county with 1,363 registered voters would transform into Herculean feats of logistics for election officials as well.

There are no paved roads running north and south in the county, just the dusty remains of Nebraska 27 as it meanders north out of Oshkosh, the county seat, past the slopes and ponds of the Sandhills.

And hiring and training poll workers can be difficult, particularly in trying to ensure the precincts were properly staffed, said Teresa McKeeman, the Garden County clerk and election commissioner.

"Some precincts might have 50 people come in all day, but there are three people there for 13 hours at a minimum," McKeeman said. "Plus, you have to train them to run the election as well as the counting machines."

Yet more than 58 percent of Garden County's voters cast a ballot in the May 15 primary election, easily outdistancing the statewide voter turnout that struggled to reach 24 percent.

Only Blaine County (74.3 percent) and Arthur County (70.7 percent) recorded higher turnout rates on Election Day, according to data published by the Nebraska Secretary of State. Meanwhile, the state's largest counties saw foundering numbers of voters.

Lancaster County reached 24.8 percent turnout in the primary, while Douglas County (19.9 percent) and Sarpy County (20.2 percent) fell short of the statewide turnout.

Garden County's secret?

It was the first county in Nebraska to conduct a countywide all-mail election after receiving approval from Secretary of State John Gale earlier this year to move forward with a pilot project.

In 2005, the Legislature gave Nebraska counties with populations of 7,000 or fewer people the option to conduct an all-mail election with the approval of the Secretary of State's office. State lawmakers raised the population lid to 10,000 in 2009, encompassing 67 of the state's 93 counties.

Since the law went into effect, more than 100 bond issue special elections have been held exclusively by mail in Nebraska, including school bond issues, levy overrides and sales tax increases, with voter data showing a turnout bump of 15 to 25 percent over traditional elections conducted at the polls.

Gale said 15 election commissioners have also pioneered all-mail elections for rural precincts in their counties, such as the Lisco precinct in Garden County that switched to ballot-by-mail for the first time in the 2016 general election.

Turnout was overwhelming in that election, McKeeman said, reaching 90 percent.

"I realize it was a small deal, only 120 voters, but it just went so well, so we asked the Secretary of State to do a mail-in vote countywide," she said.

Other county election officials who have implemented all-mail elections in rural precincts have applied to expand the effort to a county level.

Four of the nine precincts in Morrill County have handled ballots through the mail, said Kathy Brandt, who has 22 years of experience overseeing the county's elections. The Panhandle county has routinely seen voter turnouts top 70 percent in those precincts, Brandt added.

And after testing the vote-by-mail system for one of its 11 precincts in 2010, Dawes County has added three more to its all-mail list, according to County Clerk Cheryl Feist.

Each of the county election commissioners said conducting a mail-in election is more work on the front end for the clerk's office, with staff using a variety of tools — register of deeds records, or tax statements mailed by county treasurers, for example — to confirm the addresses of registered voters before mailing out the ballots weeks in advance.

But the results show it's worth it, they said.

"We have seen voter turnout go up," Feist said. "It's a convenience for our voters when they have the ballots before the election to have time to look at them and look at the candidates and issues before they make a choice."

McKeeman said the strenuous task of updating voter registration information actually culled 180 people who no longer lived in the county from its voter rolls — information they otherwise wouldn't have received.

Brandt said election-by-mail has also been more cost-effective for Morrill County, and meant earlier nights for staff on Election Day.

"We don't have to pay poll workers, don't have to pay their mileage or to rent polling sites. We're only paying postage," she said.

In its first time conducting a countywide mail-in election, Garden County spent roughly $10,850, a post-election cost analysis showed. That's more than the nearly $9,000 the county spent on the 2016 general election, but with higher turnout, the cost-per-voter actually dropped.

Gale said as more counties gain experience with rural precinct all-mail elections, the Secretary of State's office will review more applications to expand the pilot project.

His office won't grant the applications carte blanche, however. The application process includes review by several members of the election team, recommendations and meetings in what Gale described as a "strongly-based procedural program and not just a casual discretionary view."

"We have been cautious about it," Gale said. "I certainly have the authority to move forward, but we wanted to make sure they have the experience and we have the experience so we're not leaping off a cliff.

"We now feel quite educated and quite confident about the parameters of this moving ahead," he added.

Eyeing November's general election, Feist and Brandt in Dawes and Morrill counties said they are eager to join Garden County as all-mail election counties.

"I just wrote the Secretary of State requesting the remaining precincts be approved," Feist said last week. "I'm hopeful."

"I've begged for this since they started it," Brandt said. "It puts the ballot in voters' hands."

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

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.