General-election ballots will begin landing in the mailboxes of registered voters in four Nebraska counties this week after a successful vote-by-mail pilot project in Garden County earlier this year.

Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale gave approval for three additional counties to conduct all-mail elections after the Panhandle county saw voter turnout top 58 percent in the primary.

Each of the three additional counties — Dawes, Morrill and Merrick — recorded higher turnout than the statewide average of 24 percent in the 2018 primary election. And while each of those counties have conducted all-mail elections for some precincts, election commissioners there say expanding the effort will drive higher voter participation Nov. 6.

"Looking at our voter turnout, we had such a poor turnout at the polls, but our all-mail precincts did great," said Marcia Wichmann, clerk and election commissioner for Merrick County.

Merrick County has 4,744 registered voters and managed 39 percent turnout in the primary earlier this year, Wichmann said, powered largely by the 10 voting precincts already approved for mail-in elections.

Those vote-by-mail precincts reported turnout ranging from 37.5 percent to 54.1 percent, Wichmann said, while the highest of Merrick County's five walk-in polling places reported just 32.5 percent turnout.

Most regular polling places saw 25 or 26 percent turnout, Wichmann added: "We had a lot of ballots that were ordered, but never used."

She said depressed voter turnout, plus a difficulty in hiring poll workers, as well as the costs associated to train them and compensate them for mileage, led Merrick County to apply to the state to conduct a countywide mail-in election.

Dawes County Election Commissioner Cheryl Feist said she believes giving more people the option to vote by mail will improve the 30 percent turnout from earlier this year by 10 to 15 percent in the general election.

Only 1,663 voters out of the 5,508 registered in Dawes County cast a ballot in the May primary, including 669 through the mail from four of 11 mostly-rural precincts previously approved for vote-by-mail.

Feist said offering mail-in voting to voters living in Chadron and other municipalities will drive up turnout for the mostly-local races while at the same time creating a savings for taxpayers, as Dawes County will not have to hire and train election workers.

"We think postage will be less than it costs for us to bring in people to work the elections," she added.

And in Morrill County, mail-in ballots from four of the nine election precincts accounted for 20 percent of the total 789 votes cast, while the county reported 24 percent turnout overall.

Garden County, which paved the way through its successful vote-by-mail election earlier this year, has no plans to go back to its old way of doing things, said Mindy Santero, the deputy county clerk.

"We are doing it indefinitely," said Santero, who will not be challenged in the general election after winning the primary election to become county clerk.

Mail elections are more labor-intensive before Election Day, she added, with staff working diligently to update voter addresses, clean up voter rolls, and locate signatures to match those returned with the ballots.

But, Santero said, it all pays off. When she started in the clerk's office 17 years ago, staff were counting ballots until 1 a.m. Earlier this year, the Garden County Clerk's Office had results posted and its office closed one hour after the polls closed.

"It's a little more work ahead of time, and a little more post-election reporting," Santero said, "but I think it was worth it."

Wayne Bena, the deputy secretary of state for elections, said state officials considered the accessibility of polling sites, the ability of counties to hire poll workers from different political parties, and community feedback in their decision to allow three more counties to conduct all-mail elections.

He said Boone County — where 935 people cast votes by mail compared with 386 who went to the polls in May — has already asked for and been granted permission to conduct an all-mail election in 2020.

Hamilton County, which borders Merrick County, is also considering a countywide vote-by-mail election in the future, after more voters cast their ballot by mail (1,296) than went to a polling place (1,162).

Feist said she hasn't heard any derision from voters in Dawes County about the move to vote-by-mail since it was announced. Mostly, she said, they've expressed nostalgia about election days gone by.

"The biggest feedback I've gotten is that people are going to miss going to the polls," Feist said. "I think it tends to be a social event and a catch-up time for people who don't see each other on a regular basis.

"But, there really haven't been any negative remarks," Feist added.

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