Nebraska’s In-person Election Foreshadows How Voting May Look in the Future

Elections officials across the nation are examining voting procedures to ensure that all voters can exercise their civil responsibility and do so safely. The Nebraska statewide election on Tuesday, May 12, offered hints of what voting could look like in the future.

Nebraska is one of just eight states not to issue a stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic. As such, polling stations were open and staffed similar to a normal election day. Voters were not required to wear masks, although state and local election officials recommended it, and polling stations offered masks to voters who showed up without them. Voters were also encouraged to wash hands, use the hand sanitizer provided, and remain six feet apart. The state provided poll workers safety kits, including an N95 mask, gloves, sanitizer, wipes, and face shields, and instructed them to set up polling places to maximize social distancing of at least six feet.

Two hundred of the usual 222 polling places were open, and none reported significant lines. The state chose to close polling stations located in locations such as retirement communities that it deemed high risk for coronavirus transmission.

In-person turnout was relatively light because a large percentage of Nebraskans requested mail-in ballots. According to a news report, 493,393 of Nebraska’s 1,216,431 registered voters (41%) requested an absentee ballot. Nebraska’s Secretary of State office promoted mail-in ballots by mailing every voter a form to request an absentee ballot. While the expansion of absentee balloting by mail expanded access for many voters, results may have been offset by Governor Pete Ricketts’s (R) decision to cancel in-person early voting as a result of Nebraska’s COVID-19 state of emergency and the closure of many municipal offices where early voting takes place.

These factors contributed to a surprising result: despite the pandemic, the May 12 election witnessed the most votes ever cast for a Nebraska primary, with about 34% turnout of eligible voters.

Our Homes, Our Votes: 2020, NLICH’s nonpartisan candidate and voter engagement project, continues to monitor the 2020 elections. State-by-state resources are available to support voter engagement.