Political parties’ rules create confusion over ballot options for Nebraska nonpartisans

Voters can ask for partisan ballots in many primaries, but not GOP state races

By: - May 25, 2022 5:45 am

(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — A Nebraska state law meant to keep poll workers from inappropriately steering nonpartisan voters has kept some voters from understanding their ballot options during primary elections.

In Nebraska, the Republican Party allows only party members to vote in its primary elections for state offices. The Democratic Party and third parties, by contrast, do allow nonpartisans to vote in their primary elections for state-level offices. But nonpartisans must request the party ballot they want.

If nonpartisans don’t request a specific ballot when they sign in to vote, they are handed a ballot that includes no competitive, partisan primary races. 

That’s what happened to Omaha resident Elba Cera, 80. She had prepared to vote in the Democratic Party primary elections for sheriff and for governor. 

Because she was registered nonpartisan, she was handed a ballot that contained none of the partisan races she wanted to weigh in on.

“I said ‘Give me the sheriff list and the governor’s list,’” Cera said Tuesday. “They said, ‘No, you cannot get those.’ I gave the blank sheet back to them. I said, ‘I don’t know these names.’” 

Cera didn’t know about her right to request a different ballot. She left without voting. She didn’t see the notice near the sign-in book that explains which ballot voters can request. 

The notice explains that nonpartisan voters can request a ballot for the Democratic, Libertarian or Legal Marijuana Now Parties, which include candidates for state and federal office. The nonpartisan Republican ballot includes only candidates for federal office. 

Cera should have been allowed to request a Democratic Party ballot for nonpartisans, said Brian Kruse, Douglas County election commissioner.

State law bars poll workers from suggesting which ballot nonpartisans should request, for fear they might influence election outcomes. Kruse said at least one poll worker was worried about being too aggressive in sharing ballot options with Cera because of the law.

“If they would’ve told me, I would’ve requested it,” Cera said.

Political parties themselves decide who gets to vote in their primary elections.

“Voters that choose to become nonpartisans often feel like they’re supposed to be able to vote for anything, and they don’t quite understand,” said Dave Shively, Lancaster County Election Commissioner. “It’s a nominating process, and in the primary, the parties do have the choice except for Congress and Senate.”

Kruse agreed, saying, “There’s always some confusion about this around primaries.”

State Democratic Party chairwoman Jane Kleeb said Democrats allow nonpartisans to request the party’s ballot because they “wanted to show an institutional signal to independents that we were accepting them into our party.”

Jane Kleeb
Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. (Courtesy of Nebraska Democratic Party)

As the state’s second largest political party, it needs nonpartisan voters to help Democrats win statewide races, Kleeb said. In May, Nebraska had 602,410 registered Republicans, 346,526 Democrats and 268,136 nonpartisans.

State Republican Party spokesman Taylor Gage said keeping GOP primaries “Republican-only” has helped in “growing and strengthening the party across the state.” Nebraska Republicans have no plans to open their primaries to nonpartisans, he said.

Taylor Gage, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party. (Governor’s Office/State of Nebraska)

Therein lies the source of much confusion for Nebraska’s 268,136 registered nonpartisans. It’s also often a problem for poll workers, who are trained on the differences but sometimes forget them, state and local election officials said.

Election officials in Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster Counties, as well as at the state level, have said they receive several complaints from nonpartisans each election cycle but did not have a specific count. 

Most are complaints from voters wanting to vote in a closed GOP primary or from nonpartisans not knowing what ballot to request or not realizing they have to request a partisan ballot at all.

Sarpy County’s election office, for instance, received a “handful of complaints” from nonpartisan voters during the May 10 primary election, said Emily Ethington, the county’s election commissioner. They addressed those concerns with poll workers as they arose or provided guidance to nonpartisan voters with questions, she said.

Kruse recommended that nonpartisan voters with questions about their ballot options call their county election office in advance and even on Election Day, he said.

Cera said she hopes others will learn from her experience. She re-registered as a Democrat so she “has something to vote for next time.” 

“That was a lot of frustration for me,” Cera said. “I feel like I failed. I did not do my duty as a citizen.”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.

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