What a divided Nebraska town shows about mail-in voting

Story at a glance

  • Emerson, Neb., is split by three separate counties. One balloted entirely by mail in 2020, while voters in the other two voted mostly in person.

  • A new study found that turnout increased by 8 percentage points in the half of town that voted from home.

  • Both Republican and Democratic candidates benefited from the boost in turnout.

A new study makes a case for at-home voting by drawing on a unique civic experiment: a town in rural Nebraska where half of the electorate chose to vote by mail in 2020, while the other half went to the polls.

Emerson, Neb., is a classic corn-belt farm town, with roughly 900 citizens and 500 voters. The western half of Emerson lies in Dixon County. Two other counties split the eastern half.

The town’s layout made it a perfect laboratory to test the merits of mail-in balloting. Dixon County conducted the 2020 election entirely by mail. The other counties did not.

The National Vote at Home Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for at-home balloting, commissioned a study. What it found: In the fall 2020 election, 78 percent of Emerson voters turned out in the western half of town, where everyone voted by mail. In the eastern half, where most people went to the polls, turnout stalled at 66 percent.

“It was phenomenal,” said Cindy Purucker, the election commissioner in Dixon County, and in the western half of Emerson.

That is not to say the election was easy. That fall, Emerson and Dixon County became swept up in a bitter national debate about voting by mail amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic. Republican candidates across the country, led by President Trump, made baseless predictions that at-home voting would seed massive fraud in November, with Republicans the likely victims.

Dixon County used to operate nine polling places to cover a district spanning 483 square miles. Election workers were spread thin, including Purucker, who also serves as county clerk and register of deeds.

“We had three precincts that were already totally by mail because of logistics,” she said. “It was a long ways for them to travel. And my poll workers were getting older, and no one wanted to take over.”

Nebraska law allows sparsely populated counties to hold elections by mail. Purucker applied for at-home balloting in 2018, well before the pandemic.

The county held its first election-by-mail in May 2020. Turnout soared to 53 percent, more than twice the rate of the previous primary.

“People were ecstatic,” Purucker recalled. “They thought it was the best thing.”

Then, over the summer, a local candidate mounted an offensive against Dixon County’s new vote-by-mail system.

“And then it hit the fan,” Purucker said. Angry phone calls. Angry visitors. Accusations of rigged ballots and hacked voting machines, “which was not possible. There’s no Internet connection to the ballot-counting machine.” By November, Purucker recalled, “I could’ve been hung up for a witch.”

But the election went off without a hitch. Trump easily won Dixon County, whose electorate tilts Republican.

The then-president’s unfounded allegations of widespread fraud set off an unprecedented review of the nation’s electoral integrity. Time and again, government investigations and scholarly studies have found that balloting by mail yielded neither massive fraud nor innocent error.

Wide-scale tampering with mailed ballots might sound tempting, but “there’s not a lot of ways to do it,” said Natalie M. Scala, an associate professor at Towson University and director of the Empowering Secure Elections research lab.

“If they hit a U.S. Mail postal box, what’s going to be in the box? Three votes?”

Research has also shown that voting by mail tends to raise turnout by anywhere from one or two percentage points to six or seven.

The new study offered a rare chance to study the electoral equivalent of biological twins: two sides of the same town, riven by balloting method.

Researchers started out studying Nebraska as a whole, where roughly one-third of precincts voted by mail in 2020. Midway through the study, they found Emerson.

“There were a couple of other towns that had county lines running through them,” said Amelia Showalter, lead researcher in the study. “But in Emerson, it’s literally Main Street.”

Showalter and her colleagues “Google-stalked” the town, examining the demographics of eastern and western Emerson, and found them fairly similar in population, age, racial breakdown, wealth and party affiliation. The fact that three counties had carved up the town barely registered with locals.

“It’s not like you’re passing from one border to the next with signs that say, ‘Welcome,’” said Tarry Daum, a tree-trimmer who chairs the Emerson Village Board.

The study found that mail-in voting in western Emerson raised overall turnout by roughly eight percentage points in 2020, after adjusting for myriad other variables that might have moved the voting rate.

The boost wasn’t limited to Democrats. Turnout hit 85 percent among Republicans on the west side of town, where citizens balloted by mail. On the east side, GOP turnout reached 70 percent.

In Nebraska as a whole, researchers estimated that at-home voting raised turnout by three to five points. Statewide, 76 percent of Nebraskans voted in 2020.

Workers in the Dixon County election office, tucked in the tiny county seat of Ponca, mailed fresh ballots for the impending midterms on October 19th. A few hundred have come back. “We’re probably going to get trays of them pretty soon,” Purucker said.

As a rule, counties and states that elect to vote by mail don’t go back. Slogging to the polls, finding parking, standing in line with a growling stomach, “all of that stuff goes away,” Scala said.

In Dixon County, the stigma against balloting by mail seems to be fading. “I guess people are maybe resigned to the fact that this is the way it’s gonna be,” Purucker said.

Yet, in some quarters of the bisected town, unease lingers.

Daum, who chairs the Emerson Village Board, lives on the east side. He likes voting in a booth.

“I guess I’m old-school,” he said. “I feel that if a person wants to vote, it’s their right to vote, and they should go to the polling place to do it.”

Daum can’t recall a single conversation with a constituent who voiced either praise or pillory of the new voting system in Dixon County. “I don’t think people care one way or the other,” he said.

But he has heard snatches of conversation, “say, a 95-year-old woman or man, and their son helped them fill out the ballot. They could’ve checked whatever they wanted to check.”

That said, Daum trusts in the integrity of the 2020 election, at least in Emerson.

“I think it turned out all right,” he said, joking now. “Because I won the vote.”

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