For voters in three northeast Nebraska counties, Election Day no longer means a trip to the polls.
Knox, Cedar and Dixon counties have switched to mail-only balloting for all of their elections. Cedar and Dixon counties made the change in December, while Knox County joined them last month.
The switch to mail-only for an entire county means all voters will decide races and ballot measures without setting foot inside a polling place.
The three area counties’ first major use of mail-only balloting comes with the May 2020 primary. In addition, the counties can seek mail-only voting for special elections.
The three area counties aren’t strangers to mail-only balloting. They have already used it for some of their precincts — Cedar County since 2008, Dixon County since 2012 and Knox County since 2018.
Cedar County Clerk Dave Dowling received the backing of his commissioners in seeking the change for the entire county.
"The decision is made by the county," he said. "I had visited with the county board, and they supported my request with a letter approving the switch."
Dowling had previously used mail-only balloting in eight of his 13 precincts. He saw an immediate surge in voter turnout for those eight precincts and made the leap to cover all county voters.
"Cedar County is an all-mail county, from now on, in all elections," he said. "I went all-mail because we were doubling voter turnout, and the (county) residents were asking for it."
Nebraska state law allows mail-only voting in qualifying counties with populations of fewer than 10,000 residents — intended to benefit sparsely-populated areas. Each county must receive approval from the Nebraska Secretary of State.
Knox County Clerk Joann Fischer watched neighboring Cedar County with interest. She spoke with Dowling about his experiences and was encouraged by his higher voter turnout in his mail-only precincts.
Fischer saw many benefits to the switch to mail-only voting. Knox County covers a large area, she said.
"Many of Knox County voters have to travel a distance to the polling sites, so that was one of the reasons for the new designation," she said. "The voter also no longer has to wait for a ride to the polling site or deal with babysitters, weather and jobs."
In addition, the increasing difficulty in staffing election sites makes mail-only balloting more attractive, Fischer said.
"The poll workers we worked with were excellent, but it was hard to find younger poll workers because they couldn’t or wouldn’t take time off from work or they didn’t want to miss the activities of their children," the clerk said.
For the 2018 election cycle, Knox County operated mail-only balloting in three precincts: Lindy/Santee, Niobrara Area and Verdigre Area. In addition, she used mail-only balloting for special elections in the Santee and Wausa school districts.
In the November 2018 general election, the Verdigre Area Precinct reported 71 percent turnout, the Niobrara Area Precinct had 65 percent turnout and the Lindy/Santee Area Precinct had 47 percent turnout.
Those figures compared to the county-wide figure of 65.24 percent. The voter turnout figures were much higher for the three mail-only precincts compared to their previous use of polling places.
"It was impressive," Fischer said of the growing interest. "In fact, Knox County saw the younger (residents) voted more in the three mail-only precincts compared to the polling site precincts."
Fischer received positive feedback from voters beyond the higher turnout rates.
"Many voters have expressed appreciation because they no longer have to apply for each ‘early voting’ ballot," she said. "Many voters in the mail-only precincts said it was the first time they actually researched candidates. They did so because their specific ballot was right there in front of them so they knew exactly who they were eligible to vote for (in the election)."
Besides the increased amount spent on postage, Knox County will be responsible for replacement costs of its new election equipment, Fischer said. On the other hand, Knox County isn’t staffing and equipping polling sites around the county.
Dixon County has used three mail-only precincts in the past, according to County Clerk Cindy Purucker. "This last December, I applied and got approval from the Nebraska Secretary of State to go entirely mail only," she said.
Purucker pursued county-wide mail-only balloting for many of the same reasons as other counties.
"I was getting more and more requests for early vote ballots, and poll workers were harder and harder to find," she said. "And the percentage of voters at the polls was around 35-45 percent where the mail-only precincts had a 65-70 percent turnout."
With mail-only balloting, the polls close and ballot counting can begin at the current 8 p.m. for primary and general elections but at 5 p.m. for special elections.
The county clerks are making the changes needed to accommodate county-wide mail-only balloting
"We have been working to update our voter registration lists and the addresses of voters," Fischer said. "Plus, we have forged a working relationship with the postal department."
Dowling has found similar experiences in making his changes.
"The only challenges we have experienced are getting the correct mailing addresses in the voter registration file. Sometimes, when they register, they give an address that is not acceptable," he said.
"Postage is the major expense. We still have programming expense and ballot coding and production, (but there are) no more polling places, poll workers or Automark (ballot counting) expenses."
The three county clerks agree that their familiarity and past success with mail-only balloting played a major role in their decisions to go county-wide with the process.
Fischer believes the new process will make things easier. In terms of expense, the county no longer has the expenses for poll workers, their training, signs to post at the polling sites and the needed equipment at the polling sites.
Election Night results should also become available much faster, Fischer said. "Now, we don’t have to wait for ballots to arrive throughout the night (from polling places). The ballots are ready to tabulate when the polls close," she said.
Dowling also anticipates faster vote counting, while Purucker hopes for fewer provisional ballots with the switch.
As of January, 11 of the 93 Nebraska counties were entirely mail-only while another six were using mail-only in at least one precinct.
Whether more counties will — or can — go the mail-only route remains to be seen, Dowling said
"We actually have been working and pushing for legislation to raise the population limit so larger counties can do all mail for some of their smaller precincts," he said.
"We also talked about statewide all-mail. However, that will be down the road, if in fact it ever gets approved by the Legislature."
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