It takes months of planning, last minute details and tight organization to make an election go smoothly. “Election Day is the part that everybody sees,” said Election Commissioner Dave Phipps in his office at the Douglas County Election Commission on 115th and Davenport Streets. “Nobody wants to really know what happens and how you get to that point.”
“They just want to know that they can go to their polling place, get their ballot, vote it and be done for the day.”
Phipps and his staff take hundreds of steps to get to the big event. “For us, election season starts five or six months before and goes for five or six weeks afterward to make sure everything is cleaned up and accounted for. We have a relatively small staff to take care of all that.”
Elections in Douglas County are run with labor and a mountain of paper. Voting is done by paper ballot and registration requires filling out a form in advance of Election Day, signing it and mailing it back. Registration forms can also be completed at a library, Department of Motor Vehicles office or by a volunteer Deputy Registrar, all to later be entered into the computer at the Election Commission (EC). As a presidential election approaches, voter registration and re-registration requests increase exponentially. “There are so many people who vote only in that one election,” Phipps said. “We get tens of thousands of requests.” People move, get married or divorced, change their political party. There are usually 60 or 70 temps hired in the months leading up to a presidential election.
There are only 13 permanent employees at the Election Commission. The organizational chart is thin, with two rows under Phipps. The Deputy Democratic Commissioner, Lisa Wise, The Elections Manager Justine Kessler and the Public Relations Coordinator, Maria Anderson report directly to him. There are six departments to handle technology (GIS mapping), polling places, poll workers, voter registration, office administration and accounting. Most of the salaries are in the $30,000 – $40,000 range with one 20-year employee making $9,000 less than the Election Commissioner himself at $78,000.
In addition to voter registration, they handle requests for early voting ballots, interact with candidates who want to run for office, determine the locations of polling places, update the website, generate precinct maps based on voting statistics with GIS software, handle hundreds of vote-by-mail elections, print ballots, prepare boxes of supplies for all the polling places and make sure the disability equipment for blind voters is programmed to work properly. The budget for personnel, including the temporaries and poll workers hired on Election Day was $1 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012. The rest of the budget — $250,000 — includes printing, mailing, and all other contract services from computer software to the moving trucks that delivered supplies to the precincts.
On Election Day itself, Phipps gets up at 4 a.m. and is in the office by 5:30. At 6 a.m. the telephone operators start to arrive. Poll workers are either long-time volunteers who enjoy the public service or they are drafted to work, similar to being selected for jury duty. A drafted poll worker is required to serve for four elections. Poll workers make minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, typically working a 13.5 hour day with no overtime. They receive about an hour and a half of training a few weeks before the election, so there are often call-in questions about set-up and procedure. Five poll workers, no more than two from any one political party, are assigned to each polling place, including an Inspector who has worked an election in the past,
At 7 a.m. the first set of replacement poll workers arrives at the Election Commission to be sent out in the field if necessary. At 8 a.m. the polls open, and operators take calls from voters with questions such as “Where is my polling place? How do I get there?” Or, “What’s my party?” When voters are not listed in the registration book at the polling place in their precinct, a worker will call the Election Commission to find out where to send that person. If they are in the right spot but not listed, they are allowed to vote a provisional ballot, placed in a envelope so the EC can verify the registration before counting the ballot.
At 2 p.m., everything stops at the polling places for the mid-day ballot transfer. The ballot box is opened and the number of ballots counted in front of everybody. The metal ballot box is then sealed for the rest of the day. Ballots are put in a cardboard transfer case and sealed with a paper seal, signed by two poll workers from opposite parties who both drive to one of 16 collection centers where two poll workers from opposite parties are collecting boxes from a dozen or more polling places, before delivering them to the Election Commission.
“It cuts down how much we have to count in the evening,” explains Phipps. In 2006, the Secretary of State encouraged the counties not to do a midday transfer, resulting in a 24-hour work day with staff counting ballots until 5:30 a.m.
Eight counting machines costing $65,000 each — the model 650 from Omaha’s own Election Systems & Software — were purchased by the Nebraska Secretary of State through federal funds provided by the Help America Vote Act.
At 8 p.m., the polls close and the slot in each ballot box is locked and sealed to be driven to the Election Commission in a single car by two poll workers of opposite parties. The five drop boxes for early voting ballots — three in libraries, the Charles B. Washington in North Omaha, the South Omaha branch and the Bess Johnson in Elkhorn, and drop boxes at the Millard Public Schools Foundation and outside the Election Commission, are also closed.
As cars pull up, ballot boxes are loaded into carts and delivered by a local Boy Scout troop to the counting room. The supply box and the large auto-mark disability voting machine must also be returned to the Commission.
Also at 8 p.m. the Commission announced the results from the midday transfer. At 8:45, a second announcement is made which includes the results of the early voting ballots. The vote tally is updated every 45 minutes thereafter until all the ballots are counted.
Traditionally, most of the ballots are back to the EC by 9:30 p.m. During a primary election, the counting usually stops before midnight. For a presidential election, it typically goes until 2 a.m. Any provisional ballots from voters whose address or information changed will be verified in the seven day period following the election.