LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska is forging ahead with plans to hold the nation's first in-person election in more than a month, despite health concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and allegations that political motivations are fueling opposition to an all-mail approach.
Barring an unexpected change, Nebraska's primary will take place on May 12 — five weeks after Wisconsin held the last in-person balloting when courts sided with Republican legislators who pushed for that election to go forward.
Republicans who hold all statewide offices and control the Legislature have encouraged people to cast early, absentee ballots. However, they argue state law requires polling sites to be open and that it's important for voters to have a choice for how they vote, even amid health concerns.
As Secretary of State Bob Evnen put it last month, “I don’t think Nebraskans are going to stay away from the polls or not vote because of a microbe.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts agreed, arguing that to do otherwise would “disenfranchise voters who want to go to the polls," and noting that elections were previously held despite wars and pandemics.
Others, however, questioned the motives behind the decision to hold the first statewide election since Wisconsin's much-criticized April 7 primary and expressed doubt voting could safely take place. Wisconsin health officials say more than 50 people who voted in person or worked the polls during the election have tested positive for COVID-19.
The primary will decide a Democratic contest to pick a nominee to face Republican Rep. Don Bacon in the Omaha area's 2nd Congressional District, traditionally the only U.S. House seat in Nebraska where Democrats are competitive. Voters will also pick candidates in dozens of ostensibly nonpartisan legislative races, which could help determine whether Republicans gain a super-majority in the Legislature.
Nebraska Democrats have asserted for weeks that Republican leaders don't want to hold an all-mail election because of concern it would help Democrats, especially in the urban areas of Omaha and Lincoln. Republicans have dismissed such claims, but Democrats point to statements by President Donald Trump who has said “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” if all states switched to vote-by-mail.
Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said Ricketts and the state GOP are concerned about any change that might boost Democratic turnout.
“The only reason I can see the governor not doing it is for political reasons,” she said. “The Republican playbook is always to suppress the vote. They know that when fewer people vote, they win elections.”
Sen. Steve Lathrop, an Omaha Democrat, also criticized the decision to hold a polling place election but said that with the primary only a couple of weeks away, it's too late to change course now.
“Given the seriousness of the pandemic, we should have turned this into a vote-by-mail election,” Lathrop said.
Officials plan to provide all poll workers with gloves, masks, hand sanitizer and wipes, and the state has purchased 50 additional ballot drop-off boxes for counties.
Still, the planned election concerns some public health officials who watched what happened in Wisconsin, where public health departments reported at least 19 people who voted or worked at the polls have tested positive for the coronavirus.
“If you’re asking me as a public health official whether this increases the risk of transmission, the answer is definitive — yes,” said Dr. Patrick Remington, director of the University of Wisconsin Madison’s Preventative Medicine Residency Program. “That is a scientific fact, no matter how much protective equipment people wear.”
Still, even some voting-rights advocates say they understand the difficulty of shifting to all-mail voting.
State Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Democrat from Lincoln, said Nebraska “doesn't have the mechanisms in place” for vote-by-mail.
And Westin Miller, public policy director of Civic Nebraska, a group that advocates for statewide voting-by-mail, said the state doesn’t have notification or tracking technology to let voters know whether their ballot has been sent, received or counted. That could lead to ballots getting rejected without voters realizing it and undermining public confidence in voting by mail, he said.
“As a vote-by-mail advocate, the worst thing that could happen is for our first vote-by-mail election not to go well,” Miller said. “I want it to go as smoothly as possible.”
More than 300,000 Nebraskans have requested absentee ballots, a level Evnen described as “unprecedented." Given that, officials are predicting among the highest turnouts ever for a Nebraska primary.
What's less clear is whether enough workers will show up to operate voting sites.
Nebraska has 1,240 precincts statewide but some will be merged into one location to protect vulnerable residents, said Cindi Allen, a spokeswoman for Evnen. For instance, a polling site normally located in an assisted living facility will likely get moved to another voting site with adequate space, such as a high school gym. Allen said counties will decide.
Janice Walker, 73, of Lincoln, said she still plans to work at the polls but hopes for low in-person turnout and that people “use their heads and vote by mail.”
“If we have a nice, slow, boring day, that will be good for me,” she said. “It’s not a good situation for the workers.”
Martha Brown, 83, of Lincoln, said she hasn’t yet decided whether to work at the polls as she has done for more than a decade, partly out of concern for her health and partly because she doesn’t want to end up having to enforce social-distancing requirements.
“I’m not going to police the place,” she said. “What am I, the voter cop? I don’t think so.”
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As someone who has spent her life as a tailor, Sandy Spady is proud to be able to help fight the spread of COVID-19 with her sewing skills.
“I get the whole thing, like Rosie the Riveter,” she said. “This is a war. We’ve all got to chip in. We’ve all got to help. That’s a way I can help.”
She donated 30 masks to PTSR Hastings on April 27 during a therapy appointment where she was rehabilitating after recently tearing her meniscus.
Spady estimates she’s made about 250 masks, contributing material or completed masks to several of the Hastings-area mask-making initiatives.
She worked on two or three prototypes, incorporating different ideas.
“I didn’t like any of the patterns that I downloaded because they were too tight around the mouth,” she said.
Spady formerly worked as the head designer of a women’s clothing company in Mexico.
From cutting the fabric to completion, Spady estimates it takes about an hour to make one of her three-layer masks.
Instead of elastic, she uses the same fabric to make ties. She uses wire to form the mask around the wearer’s nose.
Spady already was hard at work making masks when she injured her knee recently. In fact, she thinks she may have been working a little too hard for her own good.
“I think that’s what did it for me with my knee was the up and down, up and down, up and down so much that day,” she said.
Spady has a history with PTSR. Physical therapist Gene Parks, now retired, helped her rehabilitate there after she shattered an ankle many years ago.
“It’s held together with little, bitty platinum screws,” she said of the ankle.
Cartilage was transferred from her hip to her ankle during surgery at the Mayo Clinic in 1993. That ankle couldn’t bear weight for a year.
“Gene Parks, he had to teach me how to walk all over again,” she said.
She’s giving away masks for free in Hastings she made through her business, Awesome Alterations.
She moved the business out of her home into one of the buildings that used to be part of Adams Central East.
She purchased the 24-by-60-foot building from Dan Michel Enterprises in November 2018 and had it transported to 134 S. Minnesota Ave. in June 2019. She began working there in October.
In a time of social distancing Spady has had to suspend sewing classes she held for SASA clients.
The hooks, once used to hang students’ coats, now are covered with masks available to the public.
Adams County over the weekend hit the 200 mark in its total number of laboratory-confirmed positive cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, recorded since the first case was announced on March 18.
The South Heartland District Health Department announced 24 new confirmed cases in Adams County on Friday night and another nine on Saturday night, bringing the county’s total to an even 200.
The health department, which serves Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties, also announced one new confirmed case in Clay County on Friday and another one on Saturday.
As of Saturday night, the districtwide total case tally to date stood at 216, including 200 cases in Adams County, 11 in Clay County, five in Webster County and zero in Nuckolls County.
On Friday morning, department officials announced 107 of those patients had recovered. The district’s death toll stands at four, with all of the deceased patients having lived in Adams County.
In the neighboring Central Health District, which serves Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties, the current case total stands at 1,170, with 37 deaths. The to-date case tally includes 1,100 cases in Hall County, 50 in Hamilton County and 10 in Merrick County.
The Two Rivers Public Health District, which includes seven counties to the west of the South Heartland district, reported a total of 40 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Saturday and Sunday — as well as two additional deaths: a man in his 20s and a man in his 60s, both in Dawson County.
The new cases include 39 in Dawson County. One new case was reported for Kearney County, bringing its total to date to five. The seven-county district has reported 680 confirmed cases to date.
Among Tribland counties in the Two Rivers district, Franklin County also has five cases to date, and Harlan County has zero.
In the Public Health Solutions health district, which borders South Heartland on the east, Fillmore County shows two confirmed cases to date as of Sunday evening, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ “dashboard” of COVID-19 statistics. Thayer County still shows zero cases.
In the Kansas portion of Tribland, Jewell County has reported four cases to date, and Smith County has reported two.
Nebraska’s statewide to-date case total as of Sunday evening stood at 5,659, with 78 deaths. The Kansas total as of Sunday stood at 5,030, with 134 deaths.
Employees of a large health care organization that includes Good Samaritan Society facilities in Hastings and Superior have donated more than $1 million to a fund to help colleagues in financial hardship related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sanford Health, a nonprofit company based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, operates one of the United States’ largest health care systems, including 44 hospitals, 1,400 physicians and more than 200 senior care facilities of the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society in 26 U.S. states and nine countries. The Sanford Health Foundation announced April 27 that its Enterprise Employee Crisis Fund had reached $1 million in gifts just three weeks after being established.
The money is intended to help Sanford and Good Samaritan Society employees whose lives have been thrown into turmoil by the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic, and who are struggling financially as the crisis unfolds globally.
“We are family here,” said Bobbie Tibbetts, president of the foundation, in a news release. “This is how family pulls together in crisis and comes out stronger. We lift each other up so we can do what we’re called to do — to care for our patients and communities, together, now and always.”
From early April through a week ago, 438 employees received assistance from the fund. As of April 27, 97 additional applications were under review or pending, with more being submitted every day, Sanford said.
Any employee may apply to receive up to $1,000 in assistance. Applications remain anonymous and are reviewed by a committee of peers representing all regions of Sanford Health and the Good Samaritan Society.
“As gifts come in, we’re sending 100 percent right back out to help colleagues with basic needs like food, housing, clothing or child care,” Tibbetts said. “There’s incredible need right now, but fortunately, it’s matched by incredible kindness and generosity.”
In addition to the Employee Crisis Fund, the foundation has launched an Emerging Threats Fund to support Sanford’s response to COVID-19 and other health care threats. Funds are directed to areas of greatest need, like helping purchase personal protective equipment for front-line responders or supporting enhanced training for staff to meet changing needs.
“Every day, I continue to be touched by the selflessness of our Sanford family and Foundation supporters,” Tibbetts said. “There are challenging days ahead, but the spirit of giving is shining a bright light of hope.”
Like Sanford Health, the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society is based in Sioux Falls — a community that in itself has been hit hard by COVID-19. The two organizations’ merger was effective in January 2019.
To learn more about giving to the Sanford Health Foundation in support of front-line responders and health care staff, please visit sanfordhealthfoundation.org/Covid19.