2020 has already proven to be historic and yet more history could be written this year with Nebraska as the author.
With election day quickly approaching and ballots rolling out, all eyes are on Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. According to polls published by the New York Times and CNN, the margin of victory in this year’s presidential election could be at an all-time low. Other than Maine, Nebraska is the only other state where each congressional district can award its winner an electoral vote. That could potentially swing the entire election.
Although it has historically low voter turnout, Omaha’s 2nd ward, which makes up much of North Omaha, has the opportunity to be the deciding factor between Biden and Trump.
In particular voting precinct 2-19 which contains the Miller Park neighborhood, had the second-lowest turnout of any precinct in Douglas County. That neighborhood is bordered by Highway 75 on its eastern edge and 33rd Street on its western edge. Ames Avenue runs along its southern edge and Kansas Avenue makes up its northern border.
However the problems in that precinct permeate the entire ward which had the lowest voter turnout of any ward in Douglas County.
According to seasoned canvasser and Omaha resident Schmeeka Grayer-Simpson, the lack of education and engagement are the two major contributing factors to those low numbers.
“[Candidates] don’t engage us with education, they don’t engage in our communities as far as investing in us,” Grayer-Simpson “I think our people are very aware of that, we’re not stupid. And, so as a result we don’t participate. We don’t feel like we have a real dog in the fight.”
Grayer-Simpson said she found that many registered voters opted not to vote due to a lack of candidates that represent their interests similar to how Obama energized Black voters in 2008 when he won Nebraska 2nd Congressional District, the only time it’s ever split from the state.
“A lot of it too is that we don’t have representation,” she said. “That means… the person who is representing me is taking my platform, my likeness and my needs and representing that in a way of going forth for us and fighting for us. We are not seeing that.”
This holds true statistically as voters in Ward 2 turned out in record numbers to help elect the nation’s first Black president. In contrast, numbers dropped significantly following Barack Obama’s second term. In both the 2008 and 2012 presidential general elections, over 55% of the voters in Ward 2 turned out at the polls, according to the Douglas County Election Commission. However, voter turnout dropped to just below 25% in the 2020 Presidential Primary, despite having 3,000 more registered voters than in 2012.
Less concerned with electoral votes and more concerned with putting food on the table, many communities don’t see the connection between voting and tangible change, Grayer-Simpson said. That’s even more true in the midst of a global pandemic that has exacerbated just about every known socioeconomic disparity.
“The main thing is voting literally hasn’t changed our reality as Black people,” Grayer-Simpson said. “Even if we talk about the civil rights movement, even if we talk about the equal rights movements and human rights movements that have been enacted through political action, we’re still poor. People are still hungry in our communities.
“We’re not seeing the connection between voting and a better quality of life. And it’s very discouraging to the community,” she continued. “Why take the time off to go vote when I know tomorrow my reality is not going to change?”
State Senator Justin Wayne said that although he understands that Omahans may be fed up with oppressive systems and disenfranchisement, “it isn’t just about protesting.” According to Wayne, “our biggest voice is checking that voter box and making sway that will help our community.”
“As it relates to just Omaha in general and people who have been frustrated with the systems whether it’s [Omaha Public Schools], whether it’s the county/city criminal system, whether it’s down at the state legislature, whether it’s the pot holes you drive through in North Omaha and you go out in West Omaha and they got brand new construction, all that changes with one thing,” Wayne said. “And that’s the ability to vote.”
According to local activist and former executive director of Black Votes Matter Preston Love Jr. not voting would be the bigger atrocity. Beyond the district’s sole electoral vote, Love Jr. believes there is much at stake in this year’s election, including the historic strides of the civil rights movement.
Because while Love said he’s voted in some great elections, this one probably has the most on the line of any in his lifetime.
“Quite frankly [we] could have a race war because this president has released the white supremacists and made ’em feel welcome,” he said. “And they’re also trying to unravel the victories we’ve had during the civil rights era. So, there’s so many things at stake. I hope the people will not sit this one out because it will affect our community for generations if we do.”
Wayne also acknowledged there is a lot at stake given the rhetoric from the current administration.
“We got all the way from the top down, with the Trump administration,” he said. “This divisiveness, this fact that maybe Black lives don’t matter. And the way we change that is by registering to vote. We gotta vote.”
Despite the significant drop in voter turnout, given all that’s at stake and the ease of access due to heightened mail-in ballot requests, there is a lot of optimism surrounding voter turnout in this year’s presidential election.
“Folks are getting those applications in to get the ballots sent to their homes,” Love Jr. said. “In the streets there’s a rumble. And I’m happy about it.”
Grayer-Simpson also believes voters will turn out in droves, saying fear may lead to better numbers than the 2012 Presidential general election.
“I use the word excited, but I don’t know if it’s excited or scared,” she said. “You know, I think our people are both. We are scared of what it’s going to look like if Donald Trump is in office for another four years. I think we were excited for Obama, this year we’re scared because of Trump,” said Grayer-Simpson. “So, I definitely think we’ll probably see voter turnout to be something equal or even exceed what happened with Obama… Just because we know that we are in a bad place right now and we want to try to do our part to make some changes.”