- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Some Nebraska county elections officials are seeing an uptick in their workload as voters cast early ballots for governor, U.S. Senate and other races.

Requests for mail-in ballots have prompted county election commissioners to hire additional staff to send ballots and process them as they’re returned.

Early voting has grown popular because of the convenience, and it’s pushed by political campaigns and parties that are trying to drive turnout, said Lancaster County Election Commissioner Dave Shively. Shively said his office has added part-time staff to accommodate voters and created an assembly line to prepare and mail ballots.

Employees have already sent more ballots so far this year than in the last non-presidential election year in 2010, he said. The office in Lincoln has mailed about 16,000 ballots to voters since the end of last month, and more than 4,000 have already been returned. About 180 people have voted in person.

“It grows a little bit every election cycle,” Shively said.

Despite the high-profile races and a minimum wage ballot measure, county officials predict early voting won’t top the numbers from the 2012 presidential contest. More than 804,000 Nebraskans voted in that election and 26 percent cast early ballots, according to the secretary of state’s office.

Hall County Election Commissioner Dale Baker said the number of early voters has grown in recent years, prompting her to add an extra worker as needed in the two-person office.

“It certainly does take a little more time for us on the front end,” Baker said. “Obviously, when a request comes in, we need to process that right off the bat. It used to be hit-and-miss, and we’d have time to do other election prep.”

Lincoln County Clerk and Election Commissioner Rebecca Rossell said she has budgeted for extra hours this year and added staff. The county received 1,858 early ballot requests in 2010.

This year, with nearly a month until the election, Rossell said her office has sent nearly 1,200. The county also installed a 24-hour drop box in 2012 that was widely used.

“I just think the early voting is going to keep increasing,” Rossell said. “People like it. They like to take their ballots home” before deciding how to vote.

Counties mailed the first wave of requested ballots on Sept. 29, and early in-person voting began on Oct. 4. Counties must receive final requests for mail-in ballots by Oct. 29. Early voting runs until Nov. 4.

Early voting has held strong despite a 2013 law that that reduced the number of days for in-person early voting from 35 to 30. The law was passed in response to county election officials who said they needed more time to program specialized voting machines for visually impaired voters.

The 2002 Help America Vote Act requires counties to provide specialized electronic voting machines for voters with disabilities. A Lincoln woman who is blind complained that the machines weren’t ready when the early voting polls opened in 2012.

Some rural counties have switched to mail-in voting in nearly all of their precincts. In Cherry County, state law requires voters to cast ballots by mail in 17 of its 20 precincts. Ballots have to be sent to all registered voters in the 17 mail-only precincts outside of Valentine, so roughly half of the county’s voters don’t have to request one.

Turnout was high even before the county switched to mail-in voting, averaging around 60 percent, said Thomas Ellliott, the county clerk and elections commissioner. Now that more residents vote by mail, he said, it’s closer to 75 percent.

Ellliott said some voters miss the old Election Day tradition when people would gather in homes, shops and one-room school houses to pick candidates. With more people voting early, he said, the old ways are vanishing.

“It was a little bit of social event,” he said. “It brought neighbors together.”

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