This is one in a series of Nebraska News Service stories about election and voting issues in the state and the efforts of people and organizations who are working to strengthen democracy. This series is part of a national initiative — USDemocracyDay.org — in which more than 300 news outlets published stories on Democracy Day, Sept. 15, to bring attention to the crisis facing American democracy.
People often forget that democracy is a fragile thing that should not be taken for granted, says Gavin Geis, executive director of Common Cause Nebraska.
To help protect it, Common Cause Nebraska works to promote and defend the right for everyone to have a say in their government.
“We’re a pro-democracy organization, to put it in a few words,” he said. “Our mission is to create an inclusive, accessible, accountable government.”
Common Cause Nebraska also advocates for issues such as expanding access to the ballot, reforming redistricting to make voting maps more representative of communities, reforming accountability of public officials and reforming accessibility of government records.
“We view ourselves as the people’s lobbyists in a lot of ways that we are privileged to get to speak for people and advocate for an open government and for a broad democracy in Nebraska,” he said.
The biggest way Common Cause Nebraska helps protect democracy is through the Election Protection Program, Geis said. The Election Protection Program is a national program with branches across the country. Common Cause Nebraska partners with other Nebraska organizations to participate in the program. It started its work with the program in 2020.
In the program, trained volunteers go to polling sites on Election Day to help voters in case they aren’t getting the help they need from poll workers, have any questions, are having trouble accessing the ballot or need help finding the right polling location.
“We are a nonpartisan organization,” said Creighton Hoefer, policy and outreach manager for Common Cause Nebraska. “So, the focus really is trying to make sure everyone that is eligible to vote can successfully cast the ballot. There does need to be an advocate for people’s rights that can’t kind of be tied to the actual election officials.”
While they are there, Election Protection Program volunteers also gather data about the conditions of the polling centers to report back to Common Cause, Geis said. For example, are the sites handicapped accessible? Are voters being turned away for any reason?
“It’s just having eyes and ears at our polling places to see what really is the makeup of Election Day and how it works here in Nebraska,” he said. “Then, reporting back to us when those issues show up.”
If there is an issue at a specific polling location, Common Cause Nebraska will work with election officials to try to get it remedied on that day.
If the volunteers notice something unlawful, such as political signs posted within 200 feet of the polling location, people trying to harass or intimidate voters or people asking for voter’s IDs, Common Cause Nebraska will report it to the appropriate county official. Such incidents are rare, Hoefer said, but having volunteers at polling locations helps prevent them from becoming more prevalent.
Hoefer said there have been a few instances on Election Day in which voters were turned away due to issues with finding their registration status, and Election Protection Program volunteers were able to help those voters to find them.
If volunteers noticed a structural problem at polling sites, such as lack of accessibility or voters being turned away, the organization would plan to notify election officials and would even help draft a bill to get it fixed.
During the 2020 election, most of the volunteers were stationed at polling sites in Omaha and Lincoln, but Hoefer said Common Cause Nebraska is working to expand its coverage to more areas of the state.
“In 2020, we had 25 volunteers,” he said. “I’m trying to triple that for this year.”
Geis said even in the past couple of years, there have been efforts to curtail voting rights.
“Whether it’s shortening the window in which you can vote before an election or making it more difficult to register to vote or cast your ballot on Election Day, there are efforts in the works across the nation to roll back many of these democratic rights we take for granted,” he said. “And, I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.”
Anyone can help support the fight to uphold democracy, and Geis said voting is one of the most important ways to do this. He said voting matters because whom one votes for will dramatically affect the policies the government puts in place. When fewer people vote, election results do not accurately represent the views of the population.
“Frankly, that’s how some people win elections,” Geis said. “It’s easier to win an election when fewer people are represented and fewer people can make their voices heard through the ballot. That gives some voices in our community more power than others.”
It is also vital for voters to be informed about the candidates on the ballot, Geis said. They can find information about candidates in a variety of places, such as local news coverage and the League of Women Voters website.
Geis said informed voting is the number one way people can get involved and make a change. He said he also encourages anyone interested in volunteering for the Election Protection Program to apply on the Common Cause Nebraska website.
Most trainings are done over Zoom and last about an hour, Hoefer said. Trainings began the third week of September and will continue through October.
“It’s very important that we continue to fight and push forward,” Geis said.