By Chris Bowling
This story is the first in a three-part series looking at challenges and opportunities to increase voter turnout in East Omaha in 2020. To read this story in Spanish go on El-Perico.com.
It’s a bold claim. But the thing is, it’s true.
From as far north as Florence to the southern reaches of the city’s limits. From the banks of the Missouri River to 72nd Street, the people who make up East Omaha have an opportunity to control the 2020 election.
That’s because, for years, these neighborhoods have consistently not made their voices heard. Whether it’s registration counts or total votes cast, East Omahans traditionally lag their western counterparts. Just in this last primary, for every person who cast a ballot in North and South Omaha, people in Millard outnumbered them by more than double.
If every registered voter in East Omaha cast a ballot on Nov. 3, that would be an additional 99,958 votes. Kara Eastman lost to Representative Don Bacon by fewer than 5,000 votes in 2018. Hillary Clinton lost to President Donald Trump by fewer than 6,000 votes in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District in 2016. Brenda Council lost the 1997 mayoral race to Hal Daub by 735 votes.
In 2020 it could have ramifications for the entire nation as some predictions place Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District and its lone electoral vote as the potential deciding factor between the reelection of President Donald Trump and the election of Vice President Joe Biden. Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District has only voted for a Democrat once since the state began splitting its vote in 1992: President Barack Obama in 2008.
But, on a more granular level, making sure East Omaha’s voice is heard is about leveraging a neighborhood’s interests with its ability to decide the election of anyone from a president to a school board member.
It’s not hard to see the effects of low voter turnout in East Omaha. Aging buildings, overgrown lots, cracking sidewalks. Community groups have found success through the years in pooling public and private dollars to win new development, but the victories have been hard fought. From an institutional standpoint, the needle’s been harder to move. Local government dollars have often gone to building up commercial centers, such as downtown, Aksarben or Midtown Crossing.
Advocates will point to various reasons for the disparity in voter turnouts. There’s less education about why it’s important to vote, people move more frequently in these areas and language barriers present challenges in canvassing.
Some point to political disenfranchisement, fueled by systemic racism and social inequity. Overlay maps of median income, rates of homeownership and racial diversity in Douglas County, and you’ll find clusters. They’re the same clusters that banks refused to invest in for decades, a practice called redlining. These areas were considered ripe to demolish and make way for Highway 75. Today their schools have lower attendance records, communities have worse health outcomes and evictions are more prevalent.
But Nov. 3 will come after months of protests against racial injustice and a pandemic that’s hammered poorer communities. Activists say now, more than ever, people are awakened not only to the real effects of inequity but to the real ways they could make an impact.
For this series, The Reader examined the areas that have consistently shown the least voter turnout. We wanted to know their histories, why community members haven’t made their voices heard in the past and what we can learn about 2020 and elections to come.
The answers to how efforts in these areas and others like them will impact the election are complicated. Many institutional obstacles still exist. Add in trying to canvas and register voters during a pandemic, and you get a sense of what advocates are up against.
But, if there was a time to make East Omaha’s voice heard, it’s now. If residents in this area flooded the election with thousands of new votes, it’s dizzying to think of what could happen. Beyond new state senators or federal leadership, Nov. 3 is an opportunity to make their voices heard. To take control of the narrative. To show that East Omahans can, and will, decide the destiny of their communities and this city.
Check back tomorrow for: “The Strength of the South Omaha Vote”
contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org