Story and Photos by Chris Bowling and Alex Preston
The sky faded from black to cobalt and finally soft pink as the city began to stir. The clang of construction reverberated through downtown Omaha. A few cars and buses crawled past city hall and the Woodmen Tower on Farnam Street. By any measure it was a predictable start to any day—the city’s natural clockwork not attuned to the fact that today was election day.
Without a wealth of electoral votes and its position smack dab in the middle of Republican flyover country, the country tends to expect the predictable of the easygoing Midwesterners on the first Tuesday in November.
But for those paying attention, something unfamiliar seemed to have permeated the atmosphere in Omaha.
Whether it was swinging an electoral vote, electing a progressive Democrat to Congress, or advancing activists from protesting in the streets to passing legislation, things didn’t seem like they’d be as clear cut as usual. Residents in East Omaha in particular, where social inequality and racial diversity concentrates, seemed poised to upset the balance. All in the time of COVID-19 which boosted early voting and raised concerns about how to safely vote in person.
After months of waiting, today was the day for Omaha to decide: would it play along with predictability, or would people give the nation reason to believe this anything but flyover country?
Bryce Young pulled up his 2002 olive green Subaru to city hall. His breath escaped in clouds as he walked to the Douglas County drop box on the sidewalk to submit his ballot.
It’s the last day to submit ballots at drop boxes rather than vote in-person at the polls. For weeks, more than 170,000 Douglas County residents had sent in their vote early, but the county’s election commission still expected to get a lot of stragglers like Young.
The 34-year-old has been busy with his first year of law school at Creighton University and just found the time to fill out his ballot. Young is from Salt Lake City, Utah and a fresh Omahan.
Though he was a big Obama supporter, Young found a home in the Republican party since then. Their values just aligned more with his vision for how to better America, one that emphasizes people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. In particular he’s happy to vote for Donald Trump again.
“I’m going to miss him,” Young said. “And I mean after this term, because I do feel like he’ll win, I’m going to miss him.”
The line started forming around Kellom Elementary on North 24th Street before polls even opened at 8 a.m. East Omaha had lagged in mail-in voting numbers leading up to election day, with these area, in the heart of historic North Omaha, was no exception.
Toriann Russ said she didn’t trust her ballot would get to the election commission on time, or that it wouldn’t get tampered with. So she dropped her 2-year-old daughter off at her mom’s and drove here, because there’s something empowering to cast her vote in person, she said.
But as the 29-year-old stood in line, she flip flopped on who to vote for. She didn’t like Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden, but she didn’t know if voting third party was the solution either.
“I’m not going to vote for someone for the sole reason that I don’t want this other person to win,” Russ said. “But at the same time if I don’t vote for him and I vote for somebody else, does that help or does that not help?”
Further down the line, Sherry Beson couldn’t feel more differently.
“I feel like we can’t go another four months, let alone four years with this current administration,” she said.
Beson, 57, believes the nation is at a tipping point and civil unrest turning to violence seems almost palpable. But with Biden, Beson hopes to see a return to civility and strong leadership she saw in the presidency of Barack Obama.
Farhayo Ali, 40, felt the same way. The Somali immigrant has lived in the United States for 12 years but came from a civil war that killed many of her friends and family. Now she’s living a good life in Nebraska—working seven days a week at a ConAgra factory, raising five children on her own and, after recently getting her citizenship, finally voting in a U.S. election.
She’s voting for Biden, but her only hope is that Americans can find a way to come together, no matter the result.
“If I needed war, I would have stayed in my country,” Ali said. “I’d never come here. I would have died there. That’s why I’m looking for peace.”
Calm has finally settled in the shiny new gymnasium and Leigh Ellis and Alicia Vogt-Rogers can finally take a breath. The two running the polling place near 32nd and Webster streets didn’t expect the lines of voters, but they imagine about 200 people had already voted two hours into the day.
I had it in my brain that everyone’s early voting and it’s going to be slow this morning,” Ellis said. “But it was not.”
“And they was ready,” Vogt-Rogers said, laughing.
Even though they were jammed in with another voting precinct, it seemed like things were going smoothly. The only abnormality was that poll watchers from the Democratic Party had shown up, something neither Vogt-Rogers or Ellis said they’d seen in the previous years they’d volunteered on election day.
But each side kept to themselves and the voters hardly noticed as they picked up and dropped off ballots in between squirts of hand sanitizer.
On the southern edge of Douglas County, Sadie Castillo just finished casting her ballot for an area that consistently has some of the lowest voter turnout in the city. The people that make up the neighborhoods of far south South Omaha, which includes the Southside Terrace housing projects, have more motivation than ever to make their voice heard Castillo, 23, said.
She’s Mexican American and Black, so she’s been protesting, getting involved and trying to persuade her friends to vote. Some are receptive. Others don’t think their vote can make a difference. But Castillo is optimistic people will trend toward more involvement.
“I hope that people start to get more involved,” she said. Not just on a country basis, but in their own city or in their town. Just get more involved. Because we have opportunities to change a lot of different things
Reshima Z Johnson was one of those people who thought her vote didn’t matter. The Southside Terraces resident said she felt she couldn’t get involved because she felt too poor and small for people to take her seriously.
This is the first election the 27 year old is voting in and she’s doing it now because she wants to get involved. But she can’t talk smack if she doesn’t show up to the polls.
“I feel like I got a voice for a change,” Johnson said. “Like I said I don’t know if things are going to change, but if I’m going to talk stuff or go to a council meeting or go to something, I can at least vote. Then I can talk.”
She flip flopped between Trump and Biden before coming to the polls. She liked the president because Trump says what’s on his mind and he doesn’t let others stand in his way. But she fell in love with Biden after hearing about all the death he’s seen, including one son who died of brain cancer and his first wife and infant daughter who died in a car accident.
“There’s a sadness in him,” Johnson said. “He’s went through normal things. Despite him being rich and powerful, he went through things people go through all the time.”
Things are slow at Castille Elementary School just south of downtown. Steve Knott, 63, who’s running the polling station wonders at what point he gets his staff of volunteers together for a pickup basketball game on the child-sized court.
This is his 14th time running the polling location in this neighborhood and Nov. 3, 2020 seemed pretty routine. If anything he’s surprised by the lack of any issues. Across the nation, many worried about voter intimidation or standoffs at polling places between supporters of rival presidential candidates. But Knott figured nothing like that would happen at Castille, or probably much of Omaha for that matter.
“Down here we don’t break any records,” he said.
The first time 78-year-old Frances Kudirka voted, it was for Jimmy Carter in 1977. But it didn’t take long for Kurdika, a Morton Meadows resident for five decades, to get swayed by Republican politics once Ronald Regan entered the picture four years later. Since then she’s been an ardent Republican, but honestly recently has she felt like the Democratic Party has totally lost its way.
From national figures like Nancy Pelosi to local controversies. She was shocked when the Nebraska Democratic Party stated County Attorney Don Kleine, then a Democrat, perpetuated white supremacy in his handling of James Scurlock’s murder earlier this year. When he switched parties, she welcomed him with open arms.
“I am done,” she said. “I am done with the democrats. I am so happy he changed.”
Today she voted for Trump at Jefferson Elementary School. It wasn’t quite an enthusiastic vote, but she felt she didn’t have much of a choice.
“There’s lots of things Trump says I don’t like,” she said. “But there’s lots of things a lot of them say that I don’t like. I think [Trump] cares about this country. I don’t think Joe Biden isn’t capable of running the country.”
Outside Metropolitan Community College Fort Campus, voters were greeted by a group of people offering free coffee and Panera bagels. The group identified themselves as “street medics,” and said that they wanted to offer moral support to the voters who turned out.
Everyone in the group said that they voted early to ensure that they would be available to come out to offer snacks and boost morale.
“We wanted to support people and be out here to show some humanity with everybody,” said Tiffany, the group’s spokesperson. “We hope we can spread some positive vibes during this stressful time.”
Ryan Morrissey, a senior organizer for the Heartland Workers’ Center, said that he and his co-organizers have visited several polling places throughout the day. He indicated that they were pleased with what they’ve observed.
“There was a big rush of voters in the morning, but since then it’s been going steady,” Morrissey said. “None of the poll workers said they’ve had any issues.”
Willie Lindsey, who volunteered to be the poll inspector at the Urban League of Nebraska office, said that voter turnout was steady throughout the day, following an initial rush of voters when the polls opened at 8AM.
“There were people here lined up when I got here at 7 o’clock,” Lindsey said. “I told them to go have some breakfast and come back at 8, but most of them stayed.”
“I wasn’t expecting too many people here today, until I saw that crowd this morning, but that’s what we’re here for, to help people,” Lindsey said.
Another poll worker at the Urban League office, Margie Sturgeon, said she volunteered for the position, filling in multiple roles, including clerk and greeter.
“I felt like I had the opportunity to fill other roles to support my community and do my civic duty,” Sturgeon said.
At the King Science & Technology Magnet Middle School in North Omaha a steady stream of voters walked past portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on their way to the ballot boxes.
Selma Howell said she didn’t trust candidates from either parties and wanted to keep socialism out of American politics. But her bigger problem is that the system continues serving politicians over ordinary citizens.
“I’m tired of the corruption in Washington. They’re doing it openly, and it’s like we’re not supposed to have a say in anything,” she said.
Sarah Toraelson, assistant poll inspector for this precinct at St. Pius X/St. Leo School near 72nd and Blondo streets said that workers were able to manage the steady stream of voters during the day thanks to being well-staffed with poll workers.
Toraelson said she was drafted by Douglas County Election Commission to be a poll worker.
“I’m not exactly a volunteer, but I’m happy to help,” she said.
One voter at this precinct said that she chose to vote in-person on Election Day, rather than voting early, because she felt it was the best way to make sure that her vote is counted.
“I want to see my vote go in the ballot box, and I want to make sure that it’s counted,” she said.
As the sun set on Omaha, the last few residents strolled into polling places to cast their vote. On the corner of 24th and Lake streets, several politicians made their last push to get people to the polls.
Congressional candidate Kara Eastman was rounding out the end of a long, bitter race against current Congressman Don Bacon. Today she’d waved signs and “woo’d” at passing cars on street corners all over Omaha.
“The turnout looks amazing, which is really cool,” she said. “But we’re all on pins and needles.”
Terrell McKinney stood not far away, standing on a bench and waving his sign as cars passed honking their horns and blasting hip hop music. For him this is the end of a long, unlikely journey. He launched his campaign to represent Legislative District 11 in the Unicameral as a relatively unknown candidate while also balancing his first year of law school at Creighton University.
But after COVID-19, rising unemployment and protests in the streets over racial inequality, his name rose to the top. Soon he had the support of Ernie Chambers, who represented Legislative District 11 for more than 40 years, and a community of young voters were behind him.
“People are ready for a change,” he said. “People are ready to take a new approach in this community. When you look at the historic results you know, most people I’ve talked to say we gotta do something new. We can’t go down the same path and look at our community and wonder why it’s not changing.”
There’s still an hour left to vote, but things are winding down at the Douglas County Election Commission off 122nd Avenue and West Center Road. Chris Carithers, chief deputy election commission for the county, said voting day went about as expected. For Carithers, his staff and the 2,400 volunteers the biggest takeaway from this election was how few problems they encountered along the way.
“If one is no problems and 10 is a nuclear reaction,” he said, “we’d be hard pressed to get to a two.”
There were hiccups along the way. People campaigned in voting lines or wore party affiliated garb inside polling places. One person in Benson who had a truck flying a flag that had Trump’s face on John Rambo’s body, gun in hand. But all it took to solve those problems was a short conversation from a poll worker. The biggest hurdle Carithers had to clear was getting more handicap parking at one polling location.
“[Omahans are] really not as crazy as the people we see on TV,” he said. “It might be that midwestern nice idea.”
In about an hour Carithers, along with the election commissioner, would start releasing numbers and the county would watch to see if the outcomes were just as predictable.
A small crowd gathered in Culxr House on North 24th Street. The longtime meeting place of activists through a summer of social unrest, the building was relatively quiet that night. A few members of local and national media sat and talked while a few people drank red wine from plastic cups and ate prepackaged cookies.
Soon the results started rolling in with muted reactions from the few people in attendance.
As states started coloring red and blue, the results of local races trickled in.
Kara Eastman lost her second bid for Congress to Representative Bacon, this time by a wider margin. At the same time, Biden won an electoral vote from Nebraska Second Congressional District, only the second time a Democrat won a split vote from Nebraska.
McKinney easily sailed to a victory in Legislative District 11. Longtime representatives on the County Commission held their ground.
Statewide, Nebraskans voted to repeal language that would allow slavery in the state, limit interest rates payday lenders can charge and allow gambling in the state.
In total, 261,649 people voted in Douglas County, as of counts this morning. That’s 20,000 more people voted in Douglas County than 2016, the previous high, and means that about 90,000 people voted in-person on election day, which is slightly more than the election commission predicted.
Was it the blow out victory some hoped to see following months of protests and disparities highlighted by COVID-19? While Nebraska broke with some norms, it fell into other patterns of predictability.
But maybe all that matters is that it was a step forward at all. The lights have gone out across the city. The construction downtown long silenced. The main thoroughfares emptied while cars filled tree-lined neighborhood curbs and driveways.
Soon the sun will rise in Omaha, turning from deep purples to pastel blues and another day will start.
“Even if nothing changes,” said Reshima Z Johnson in South Omaha, “at least I can say I tried.”