As Douglas County gears up for the May 12 primary, election officials are taking precautions to keep people six feet apart, sanitize every surface and conduct a safe election at voting locations.
But as record breaking requests for mail-in ballots pour in, it’s starting to look like those booths might stay empty. And that’s just what Chris Carithers, Chief Deputy Commissioner of the Douglas County Election Commission, would like to see.
“We’ll have all the precincts open,” he said, “and we’re hoping no one shows up.”
After record breaking weeks of economic downturn, unfathomable unemployment and a raging pandemic, Douglas County has at least one positive statistic to show. So far more than 116,000 people have requested mail-in ballots for the upcoming May 12 primary surpassing the turnout of both the 2016 and 2018 primaries in which about 70,000 people voted in each.
To meet the demand, the Douglas County Elections Commission has expanded from a staff of 13 to about 50, lengthened its hours and set records by processing thousands of ballots every day. They’ve currently processed nearly 73,000 and already gotten more than 17,000 back with early voting results.
Carithers said the commission will have all ballots mailed by May 6.
So far, most of the processed ballots are going to zip codes in West Omaha, according to data analyzed by The Reader. The election commission has sent more than 3,000 to areas like Millard or Elkhorn while North and South Omaha have received a third of that.
Carithers said the Election Commission tries to eliminate disparities in voter turnout by meeting with a stakeholders group that represents people who represent a variety of demographics. Carithers said the election commission understands some voters feel marginalized and justifiably so in some cases. By meeting with this group the election commission hopes to be transparent, sharing information with those stakeholders so they can disseminate it to the community.
“We want to make sure those people under we’re working fairly and evenly on all sides,” he said.
He said that need is heightened as the commission operates during a time of heightened political scrutiny for mail-in elections.
While Nebraska is committed to keeping its physical polling places, calls for all-mail elections in other states have drawn ire and debate. Wisconsin had an in-person election against the will of its governor following a Supreme Court decision.
Carithers said he hasn’t experienced much push back from any of the 356,414 registered Douglas County voters. Of that pool, 38% are registered Democrat, 36% are registered republican and about 25% are registered non-partisan. One percent are registered Libertarian.
What is happening across the political spectrum however is more people are requesting they be sent requests for mail-in ballots in future elections. Carithers said 60% to 70% of those who responded to mail-in ballot requests have also requested they be put on that list
“The number of people who’ve checked the box to put on that list is incredibly high,” he said.
Carithers said this moment shows there is a demand for remote voting and hopes this means more elections are conducted this way in the future.
As the Election Commission prepares for this upcoming primary, however, in-person voting is still very much a consideration.
Carithers said some voting places will consolidate while 32 percent will have changed location, a slight increase from last year but not out of the ordinary, Carithers said. In addition they’re having to put together different programs for those living in public housing or nursing homes to safely get their votes tallied.
The election commission is also looking for about 400 paid volunteers to work voting booths. Many of their usual volunteers are unable to work as they’re elderly and considered high risk for coronavirus infection. In addition to face masks, the election commission is providing sanitation kits and hand sanitizer as well as keeping lines staggered and crowds under 10 people.
It’s a lot of extra precaution, but Carithers said it’s what’s necessary as the commission prepares for an election during a pandemic.
“It’s a juggling game of keeping the voters happy and keeping the voters safe right now,” he said.