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.
Jennifer Yi-We Hernandez, democracy is about having your voice heard and increasing your voice through elected representatives. And that’s exactly why she started Ballot Buddies.
Ballot Buddies is a ballot pickup and delivery service in Douglas County. Volunteers pick up sealed mail-in ballots from voters who fill out a request form on their official website.
Yi-We Hernandez started Ballot Buddies in September 2020, just two months before the presidential election. The pandemic was in full swing and social distancing was the norm. During the 2020 presidential election, 43% of all voters used a mail-in ballot during the 2020 presidential election, according to a report by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Simultaneously, the United States Postal Service was undergoing a crisis, as operational changes and the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to slower sorting times. Ahead of the election, the USPS released a warning letter explaining there was a “risk that ballots requested near the deadline under state law will not be returned by mail in time to be counted”.
Yi-We Hernandez knew she had to do something to help voters cast their ballots in time, and Ballot Buddies was the solution.
Over 300 individuals submitted volunteer applications to Ballot Buddies. Yi-We Hernandez said she initially received more volunteer applications than requests to pick up ballots, which surprised her.
“I’ll never forget how great it felt to see so many strangers excited to help ensure that voters have their ballots counted,” she said. “We ended up having hundreds of people sign up to have their ballots picked up.”
Yi-We Hernandez is a data analyst, which helped her effectively organize the incoming volunteer applications and pickup requests. She worked to reach as many voters as she could, a process she developed when she ran for local office in 2018. Ballot Buddies gained traction quickly.
The volunteers underwent a rigorous vetting process. She immediately rejected anyone with a conflict of interest, including those holding public office. She eliminated applicants with a convicted history of theft. Finally, she ensured none of her volunteers had any radical political beliefs, both liberal and conservative.
Yi-We Hernandez selected a team of around a dozen volunteers, and they worked diligently in Douglas County to pick up ballots wherever they were requested. Yi-We Hernandez said Ballot Buddies delivered hundreds of ballots to official Election Commission drop boxes.
“I just wanted to do something to ensure that as many people got to vote as possible, without having any barriers there,” she said.
Shifting to voter education about local issues
This year, only around 50 individuals requested ballot pickups ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Yi-We Hernandez said she and her husband can complete the pickups themselves without additional volunteers.
Yi-We Hernandez is hoping to transform Ballot Buddies into a resource for voter education. These changes will go into effect by next year, ahead of the 2024 presidential campaigns.
Ballot Buddies will still provide a pickup service for those who need it, but Yi-We Hernandez said voter education is important so voters can understand what they’re voting for, how it affects their day-to-day life and why they should care.
Yi-We Hernandez is especially focused on educating voters about local issues. She said the local offices address a variety of concerns — everything from repairing potholes to electing officials. Some politicians use local politics as a stepping stone to get into bigger offices, she added. Yi-We Hernandez said local races are more important than people think, even though they receive less attention.
“When there’s low turnout in local races, that means that local issues are determined by a small group of people. And that makes even a single vote way more important, statistically speaking,” Yi-We Hernandez said.
Making a difference in her community
Yi-We Hernandez is no stranger to local politics. In 2018, she ran for Clerk of the District Court in Douglas County. Her campaign was focused on voter education and increasing voter turnout in all the local down-ballot offices. Though she lost by a slim margin, Yi-We Hernandez said she received almost 100,000 votes, nearly double the amount of votes she expected. Running for office fueled her interest in local politics and educating voters — an interest which would develop into Ballot Buddies.
Yi-We Hernandez said she has helped over 100 people safely leave domestic violence situations. She has helped individuals receive protection orders and file for divorce. As a survivor of domestic abuse who fought a 13-year custody battle for her child, Yi-We Hernandez was dissatisfied with how the district courts handle domestic issues. She is compassionate toward the difficulties facing people of color and the LGBTQ community. These issues motivated her to run for office, and she said she is still invested in making a difference for these communities through her volunteer work.
Concerns for democracy
Yi-We Hernandez said she has a lot of concerns related to democracy. She is concerned about the spread of misinformation by individuals who are questioning the validity and security of the election process.
Ballot Buddies is nonpartisan, but Yi-We Hernandez said the organization received pushback from individuals who questioned the integrity of the mail-in voting process. She said some conservative lawmakers even tried to “shut down” Ballot Buddies after its initial success.
For her work creating Ballot Buddies, she received a Strengthening Democracy Award from Civic Nebraska in June 2022 for improving voting accessibility in her local community.
Though she does not plan to run for office again, Yi-We Hernandez feels she can make an impact on a larger scale through her volunteer work. She helps candidates organize their data, reach out to voters and inform voters about the issues on their ballots.
“I want to transform the way that people think about voting and the number of people that are voting,” she said.
Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, Yi-We Hernandez shared her most important advice for voters:
“Vote all the way down your ballot and remember that your vote does matter regardless of the outcome.”