Nebraska’s primary election was overwhelmingly quiet Tuesday as voters steered clear of polling sites while shattering the state record for absentee voting with nearly 400,000 mail-in ballots.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden sailed to an easy victory in the election, the first in-person primary since a heavily criticized election in Wisconsin five weeks ago in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. So did Republican U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, who faced a GOP primary challenge because of his previous criticism of President Donald Trump.
Officials had encouraged people to vote by mail, though Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and Secretary of State Bob Evnen both pledged to forge ahead with an in-person primary even though many other states have rescheduled theirs or switched to all-mail voting.
Polling sites in the Omaha suburb of Papillion reported lower in-person turnout than normal Tuesday morning. At First Lutheran Church, voters who walked into the basement polling station had plenty of space to cast their ballots.
Michael Rabe, 68, of Papillion, said he wanted to vote in person because he doesn’t trust mail-in voting but believes he had a civic duty to cast a ballot. Rabe wore a mask into the polling site, only to realize he was the only voter there at the time. The self-described “hardcore Republican” said he was most interested in voting for Matt Innis, a long-shot primary challenger to Sasse.
“I didn’t like that when President Trump got into office, Sasse opposed him,” Rabe said after voting. “I was not a Trump supporter when he was running, but now that he’s our president, I am.”
Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse, who oversees polling sites in Omaha, said in-person turnout was unusually low. He said he still expected strong turnout overall because of the huge number of mail-in ballots received, but “there’s just nobody out there today” and the election has gone smoothly.
“Man, is it quiet out there,” he said.
Ricketts ordered members of the Nebraska National Guard to provide on-call help at short-staffed polling sites in eight counties, including the Omaha and Lincoln areas. He said Guard members would be dressed in civilian clothes, not their normal uniforms.
“They’ll be available to help out,” he said.
A Guard spokesman said 135 members have gone through poll worker training but won’t be dispatched unless they’re requested. The counties that might have Guard members as poll workers are some of Nebraska’s hardest-hit: Dakota, Dawson, Douglas Hall, Lancaster, Lincoln, Madison and Scottsbluff.
Ricketts said he had also waived a state law that requires poll workers to live in the county where they serve, largely because of a poll worker shortage.
This year’s primary is fairly low-key but includes a high-profile race among Democrats who want to unseat Republican Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. The Omaha-area district is one of the few in Republican-led Nebraska where Democrats are competitive. Bacon easily won the GOP primary Tuesday in his re-election bid.
The Democratic field has three candidates: nonprofit consultant Kara Eastman, Omaha lawyer Ann Ashford and Omaha business owner Gladys Harrison. Eastman has positioned herself as a progressive, while Ashford pitches herself as a moderate. Harrison has touted herself as a unifying voice but hasn’t raised nearly as much money or gotten as much attention.
Randall Crutcher, 45, voted at Papillion Middle School Tuesday morning because he and his wife forgot to request early, mail-in ballots. He wore a mask as he walked inside, only to find the polling site virtually empty except for poll workers.
Crutcher said he had been an independent for most of his adult life and holds conservative views on spending, but re-registered as a Democrat two years ago because of the GOP’s support of President Donald Trump.
He said he liked both Democratic candidates in the 2nd Congressional District race, but voted for Eastman because of her life story, including her struggles to care for her ailing mother. On the campaign trail, Eastman often discusses her mother’s inability to afford prescription drugs to fight her cancer.
“She has built-in empathy,” Crutcher said. “That’s something we all need right now.”