Election Officials Confident, Workers Concerned About Virus At Polling Sites May 12

The Secretary of State's Office sent an application for a mail-in ballot to every registered voter in Nebraska. The deadline to return the application is May 1. (Photo: Becca Costello, NET News)
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April 28, 2020 - 6:45am

Nebraska’s primary election is still set for May 12 despite the coronavirus pandemic. Election officials are confident in-person voting can be conducted safely, while some poll workers and voters aren’t so sure.


Although Nebraska doesn’t have a “stay-at-home” order, state officials are adamant that people should still stay home unless absolutely necessary.

And having in-person voting as an option on May 12 is absolutely necessary, says Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen.

"There's nothing more bedrock in a representative democracy than the fair and secure conduct of elections," Evnen said. "And so we're committed to conducting those elections in a way that is fair and secure, and now also that it is safe for our poll workers and for our voters."

Health officials say Nebraska’s COVID-19 peak is expected at the end of April or early May – so the risk of infection on May 12 could still be high.

Evnen says every polling site in the state will get a sanitation kit, with gloves, N95 masks, sanitizer, and disinfectant. 

And each in-person voter will get their own pen to mark the ballot. But some poll workers are concerned that’s not enough.

Request a Mail-In Ballot

Deadline: May 1

"The logistics of it, I think, are little frightening if we want to make sure our community stays healthy," said Nancy Ehlers, an alternate poll worker in Lancaster County. 

Even though she’s passionate about helping with the election in her community, she’s considering backing out this year.

"I think it's an important piece for everybody, no matter their political beliefs, to be  involved in an election," Ehlers said. "And I feel like it shouldn't be jeopardizing your health to go vote."

She’s not the only one – a lot of poll workers are retired Nebraskans, many of them in the age range most at risk for severe symptoms if they contract COVID-19.

About 30% of poll workers in Douglas County have backed out so far, and Election Commissioner Brian Kruse expects more to cancel in the coming weeks.

"If you're in that healthy category, or you're young,  please, please, volunteer to be a poll worker," Kruse said. "Let our parents and grandparents sit out this one, and do our duty for democracy."

Most counties struggle to find poll workers in any election, so the pandemic is just exacerbating an existing problem. 

The Secretary of State’s office is helping counties recruit workers. But their biggest hope is the majority of Nebraskans will skip the polls and vote by mail instead.

"The purpose of pushing an early vote is to try to get fewer people to polling sites," said Lancaster County Election Commissioner David Shively. 

Every registered voter in the state has received an application for a mail-in ballot, and more than 450,000 requests have been sent in so far.

Critics say it’s not enough. The ACLU of Nebraska wants the state to mail each voter a ballot with a prepaid return envelope. And the Nebraska Democratic Party wants the state to move to an all mail-in election.

Other states with spring primary elections have made similar moves. The Kansas primary election will be entirely by mail on May 2.

Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen says those options aren’t being considered here.

"You can't have an all mail in election without a law change," Evnen said. "And you know, the governor can't just order this."

Other states have delayed their elections, like Indiana and Kentucky. But that’s not an option in Nebraska either.

"We are planning to have the election. We have no plans not to have the election. We're going to go forward on May 12," Evnen said. "Unless, I don't know, perhaps an asteroid the size of Mars strikes the earth, in which case there might be a delay."

In north central Keya Paha County, Clerk and Assessor Suzy Wentworth says the state has gone to great effort to support county election officials. But the small, rural county does have a unique concern:

"One thing that was weighing on me earlier, is our community doesn't have very many EMTs and I'm an EMT," Wentworth said. 

So if an emergency call comes in for a resident with COVID-19 symptoms, should she go on the call and risk having to quarantine right before an election?

"And that would put a lot of weight on my deputy, who is doing a great job but just started in February," she said. "So it's just the two of us in our office. So lots of stuff to ponder.

State and local officials are united in their election day message: vote by mail so the in-person polling sites won’t be too crowded.

The deadline to request a mail-in ballot is May 1.

More news: netNebraska.org/coronavirus

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