A Lancaster County early voting drop box sits outside of the Lancaster County Election Commission in Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Individual decisions by a dozen county election officials about mail notifications could affect which voters turn out for the June 28 special election in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District.
The election between Republican State Sen. Mike Flood and Democratic Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks will determine who represents the district through the end of the year, replacing former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who resigned at the end of March after being convicted of three felonies in federal court.
Counties are going their own way in sending postcards to voters to request early ballots, much like during the 2020 election, in the early part of the pandemic, before the state stepped in and sent the cards to every registered voter.
What they’re doing
Five 1st District counties sent cards to voters who had signed up for long-term vote-by-mail lists: Lancaster, Madison, Platte, Dodge and Cuming. The cards provide information about how to request an early ballot for the next election.
Four counties — Butler, Colfax, Seward and Sarpy — never send out such cards. None of them operates an indefinite vote-by-mail list, though Butler is considering creating one.
Stanton County mails a ballot to every voter before every election, including this one. Stanton is one of 11 rural Nebraska counties that vote entirely by mail.
Then there are Polk and Cass Counties, which typically send ballot-request cards to people who voted early in the last election. They ended up on different paths for the special election.
Polk spent $850 to send ballot request cards to every active registered voter in the county. Cass considered doing the same but was too late. Instead, it sent cards to people who voted early in the May primary.
The Nebraska Examiner probed the inconsistencies after a Cass County resident complained that Cass had not sent voters the usual ballot request cards before the May 2022 primary.
Cass County Election Commissioner Linn Moore said she didn’t send cards for the primary election because of the expense. She said it would have cost $4,800 to send the cards to a record 6,000 people who voted early in 2020.
Her annual budget for postage is about $10,000, she said.
“I just couldn’t justify the cost,” she said.
Moore said she has sought help from the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office on how to create a long-term, vote-by-mail list that will determine who receives cards from the county in the future. She said she couldn’t create it in time for the special election.
Moore said she had enough in her budget to send cards during the special election because a smaller number of people voted early in May. She said she understands people prefer consistency from the office.
“I’m rectifying that,” she said last week. “I agree on the consistency thing.”
Polk County also sent cards to people who voted early in 2018, the last primary election before the pandemic, said Debra Girard, Polk County election commissioner.
“We threw out 2020,” she said, also citing concerns about cost during that atypical election year.
Comparing 2020 to 2022
Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen declined to comment about the issue. In 2020, some GOP state leaders questioned letting local election officials make their own choices about sending ballot request cards.
The state’s most populous counties sent ballot request cards to all residents, but many smaller counties did not follow suit. Most Democrats in Nebraska live in the most populous counties, while Republicans outnumber Democrats in many rural counties.
Now it is Democrats, including state party chair Jane Kleeb, questioning whether political motivations might play a part in decisions for an off-peak election where more than half of the district’s voters live in blue-leaning Lancaster County.
Kleeb said voters are confused, and state and local election officials need to remember that regular folks don’t live and breathe election processes.
Misinformation about early voting by people like former President Donald Trump magnifies fear and misunderstanding, Kleeb said.
“What it feels like is that Republican-dominated counties want to restrict the use of vote-by-mail because Democrats very much support the use of vote-by-mail,” Kleeb said. “This is not a secret, and we shouldn’t be dancing around it.”
Taylor Gage, executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, said the state GOP supports local control to ensure that elections are run in ways that people trust, because they know the people who run them.
“There are going to be different policies in different counties. But over time as people are consistent (locally), those communities can build processes that work for them,” Gage said.
“I think we have to have a little bit of grace,” he said. “Those things will work themselves out over time.”
The value of consistency
Election officials cited practical reasons, not political ones, for their decisions.
But political observers said people might become suspicious if they see a neighbor post on social media about receiving a request card and haven’t received one themselves.
Lancaster County mailed 66,000 cards to voters who signed up for the indefinite vote-by-mail list, said Dave Shively, Lancaster County election commissioner. The county has nearly 200,000 registered voters.
“That list grew out with the pandemic because when we did send cards out during the pandemic, both in the primary and general, people then, you know, added their name to the list,” Shively said.
Colfax County, with 5,252 registered voters, has no long-term vote-by-mail list and few early voters. About 200 people voted early in May, Colfax County Election Commissioner Rita Mundil said.
“We just don’t have that much interest in it,” she said.
Inconsistencies in how elections are run county to county and race to race risk raising questions that can get out of hand, said Steve Smith, a spokesman for voting rights advocacy group Civic Nebraska.
“In the minds of voters, consistency is extremely important,” Smith said. “They reasonably expect specific patterns and processes from election to election.
“Procedural changes – no matter how small, no matter how necessary or justified – can be hyper-politicized.”
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