Nebraskans Use New Law to Vote Through Mail

For years, Election Day and garage-cleaning day at the Kime family ranch were almost one and the same.

The itch to clean wasn't a psychological reaction to the mud thrown by politicians. Rather, the two-car garage was where voters in a sparsely populated, rural precinct in northern Nebraska came to cast their ballots.

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But Danita Kime won't have to do any sweeping before Nov. 7. The 25 registered voters in her Cherry County precinct -- which sprawls across 150 square miles -- will instead do their voting by mail, thanks to a new state law being used for the first time.

"We thought it was senseless to pay people to sit down here, when most of the people come before lunch, and then just twiddle our thumbs the rest of the day," Kime said of election workers who in recent years might be visited by 15 voters all day.

The mail-in law, shepherded by state Sen. Deb Fischer and passed last year, can be used in counties with fewer than 7,000 residents. Roughly half the counties in Nebraska qualify, but only Cherry County officials requested that they be able to use it for the general election.

Kime's precinct is one of 15 in Cherry County that will use mail-in voting for the upcoming election. There are 20 precincts in the county.

Voting by mail isn't new. For eight years, Oregon has been the only state whose citizens vote exclusively by mail in statewide elections, but others are moving in that direction. Large percentages of ballots in Washington state and California are expected to be mailed by voters this year.

Though it covers about 6,000 square miles, more than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, Cherry County has fewer than 4,600 registered voters. The big size and small population, combined with few major highways, forced some residents to drive many miles on back roads to reach polling places.

"Here they voted in a one-room schoolhouse, here in a machine shed, here in a rodeo arena," Cherry County Clerk Tom Elliott said, pointing to spots on a map showing the county's precincts. "These people voted in someone's house."

The only polling place Kime has ever known is a garage -- first at her in-laws, and for the past few years at her house. Both are centrally located in the precinct.

Elliott initially sought permission to switch most of the county to mail-in voting before the May primary. But a month before the election, he was turned down by the secretary of state's office.

Officials said regulations were not in place for mail voting. The problem was compounded by new election laws that require votes to be counted electronically. That made using the rural polling sites unfeasible because they were not outfitted with the new scanning equipment.

Elliott had decided it didn't make sense to put the $10,000 machines in sparsely populated precincts where they would get scant use. So Elliott scrambled and sent absentee ballots to all registered voters in the county.

The last-minute strategy worked -- voter turnout was normal -- and residents who wanted to vote at a poll did so in Valentine, the county seat.

The lack of equipment that has turned hand-counting into an election relic in Nebraska wasn't the only deficiency of the folksy polling sites. Some of them weren't handicap-accessible, said Elliott, and the federal government was becoming more adamant that counties meet accesibility standards.

To make her in-laws' polling place comply during previous Election Days, Kime said, her family opened the main garage door. When the family made the switch to her garage a few years ago, the side entrance was used.

Nebraskans in the past have only been able to vote from home during local special elections, and those have had higher-than-normal turnout, said Secretary of State John Gale.

"Cherry County's in a sense a kind of test run for this new program," Gale said.

He said he won't require other counties to use it, and instead will rely on recommendations of county election officials.

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