Nebraska’s voter turnout trails some neighboring states
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Groups are trying to boost voter turnout in Nebraska as Election Day nears, but the challenge may be greater than in some neighboring states.
Nebraska consistently ranks in the middle of the pack nationally and lags behind Iowa and Colorado when it comes to the percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots. It also trailed South Dakota and Missouri in three of the last five elections, according to reports compiled by Nonprofit VOTE, a group that tracks state turnout data.
Voting-rights advocates say a variety of factors likely contribute to Nebraska’s middling turnout, including fewer competitive statewide races due to the Republican Party’s dominance, but a key factor is the state’s registration deadlines, said Brian Miller, Nonprofit VOTE’s executive director. Whereas Nebraska requires potential voters to register more than two weeks before an election, states that allow voters to register on Election Day usually have higher turnout.
“One of the biggest barriers to turnout is registration,” Miller said. “People aren’t paying attention until right before the election. We have a culture that waits until the last minute.”
States that work to expand voting by mail and allow online registrations also see turnouts increase, said John Cartier, director of voting rights for Civic Nebraska, a nonprofit voter advocacy group.
Cartier pointed to Garden County, which saw a sharp uptick in ballots cast during the May 15 primary after officials there switched to a vote-by-mail system. More than 58 percent of the county’s registered voters participated, up from 27 percent in the 2014 primary. The county also outpaced this year’s statewide primary turnout of 24 percent.
“What we’re seeing now is historic,” Cartier said. “It’s really encouraging.”
Cartier said Nebraska would see a huge jump in participation if the three largest counties — Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy — adopted an all-mail system.
Cartier credited Secretary of State John Gale, a Republican, for working to increase voter turnout at a time when GOP election officials in other states have been accused of trying to reduce turnout among Democratic voting blocs.
Gale announced last week that the number of registered Nebraska voters has reached an all-time high of more than 1.2 million. Gale, who will retire in January, said 213,791 voters have requested to early vote by mail or in person, or they live in an all-mail district.
Both major political parties hope to boost turnout for an election that includes a Medicaid expansion ballot measure, a closely watched race for Omaha’s 2nd Congressional District and scores of state Senate races.
The Nebraska Republican Party put a special emphasis this year on driving early voting in Douglas County, one of the few areas where the party hasn’t competed effectively with Democrats, said Executive Director Kenny Zoeller.
Even though Republicans still fare well in parts of Omaha and its suburbs, Democratic voters generally turn in far more early ballots. Zoeller said his party’s strategy appears to be working.
“In the past, we’ve gotten beaten terribly in early voting,” Zoeller said. “We haven’t been competitive.”
The Nebraska Democratic Party sent voter guides to all registered Democrats, encouraging them to vote and showing them all of the Democratic candidates in their district, even those in nonpartisan races. They’re also targeting traditional early voters with ads and text messages, and have implemented a block captain program to ensure that Democrats get registered on time and cast their ballots.
Democrats hope to build momentum by mobilizing voters who traditionally don’t vote. A ballot measure to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income people and the tight House race between Democrat Kara Eastman and Republican U.S. Rep. Don Bacon could help, said Jane Kleeb, the party’s executive director. Additionally, the party is running a large number of women candidates.
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