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"The Adrenaline Gets You Through It" - A Look Behind Election Day in Lancaster County, Nebraska

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[Image courtesy of cojmc.unl.edu]

Monday's Lincoln (NE) Journal-Star had a great piece on the preparations Lancaster County, Nebraska went through to make Election Day (today!) happen. This article is impressive not just for the work the election office does but for the depth and detail of the reporting by the paper's Jordan Pascale.

Enjoy ... and good luck to everyone in Lancaster County and elsewhere who's running elections - or just voting in them - today.

On Tuesday, voters will arrive at their polling places, sign in, fill in bubbles and return their ballots -- it could take maybe five minutes.

But putting on an election involves at least five months of preparation for the Lancaster County Election Commissioner's office.

The week before Election Day, you can find the office's back room filled with voter booths, collapsed down into metal briefcases, hundreds of ballot boxes and cases of supplies and ballots.

It's a big numbers game: 178,000 registered voters, thousands of ballots, 1,100 poll workers, 198 precincts, 153 polling places, dozens of races and five ballot-scanning machines.

This year, the process was more work than usual because of redistricting, which is done every 10 years and forces new boundaries to be drawn, resulting in smaller districts and fewer polling places.

The changes consolidated 223 precincts into 198. A third of Lancaster County residents will cast their votes at a new polling place this year.

Polling places decreased from 165 to 153 in the county, but Lancaster County has avoided the controversy that plagued the closing of dozens of polls in north Omaha.

The result will save the county $25,000 to $30,000.

An average presidential election costs Lancaster County about $300,000, said Election Commissioner Dave Shively [pictured above - DMCj]. That pays for ballot printing, scanning, rent for poll sites and paying poll workers.

It all starts in December, when letters are sent out to political subdivisions such as the County Board of Commissioners and the Legislature to see what races are open this year. In January, the ballot layout begins and candidate filings roll in.

In February, the office is recruiting poll workers.

In late March, ballots are printed. That's why you'll still see Chuck Hassebrook on the ballot for Senate even though he withdrew and isn't running a campaign anymore.

About 35 days before Election Day, people can start voting by absentee ballots. So far, 12,000 have voted that way.

The office covers a lot of obscure bases to make sure everyone has the opportunity to vote.

The office can fax or email ballots to military personnel serving overseas.

It uses 150 computerized machines on Election Day so people with hearing and sight disabilities can cast their votes with little help.

Election officials even think about people who may get in freak accidents and wind up in hospitals on Election Day. They call all three hospitals in Lincoln to make sure everyone has had the opportunity to vote.

Yet still, an average primary gets about 20 to 25 percent turnout.

"It's disappointing," Shively said.

The day begins early for Shively. He's into the office by 6:30 a.m., and the phone inevitably starts ringing by 7.

"Someone is usually missing something," he says of the poll workers. "So we'll rush it out to them.

"We're here to make sure everything goes smooth."

Polls open at 8 a.m., but in the afternoon and evening hours, more than 50 people are in the office.

After polls close, a parade of cars drops off ballot boxes and security is brought in to make sure ballot counting isn't compromised.

Boy Scouts shuttle the empty boxes and booths back to storage.

By 11 p.m. or midnight, the counting winds down and staffers go home.

"It's a long day," Shively said, "but the adrenaline gets you through it."

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