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Nebraska holds nation's first in-person election in weeks amid coronavirus pandemic

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Nebraska on Tuesday is holding the nation's first in-person primary since a heavily criticized election was held in Wisconsin five weeks ago, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Election officials have repeatedly urged voters to cast early, mail-in ballots. But Republican Governor Pete Ricketts and Secretary of State Bob Evnen both pledged to forge ahead with an in-person primary even though many other states have rescheduled theirs or switched to all-mail voting.

On Monday, Ricketts said members of the Nebraska National Guard will be on call to help short-staffed polling sites in eight counties, including the Omaha and Lincoln areas. He said Guard members will be dressed in civilian clothes, not their normal uniforms.

"They'll be available to help out," he said.

A Guard spokesman said 135 members have gone through poll worker training but won't be dispatched unless they're requested. The counties that might have Guard members as poll workers are some of Nebraska's hardest-hit: Dakota, Dawson, Douglas Hall, Lancaster, Lincoln, Madison and Scottsbluff.

Ricketts said he waived a state law that requires poll workers to live in the county where they serve, largely because of a poll worker shortage.

This year's primary is fairly low-key but will include a high-profile race among Democrats who want to unseat Republican Congressman Don Bacon of Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District. The Omaha-area district is one of the few in Republican-led Nebraska where Democrats are competitive.

The Democratic field has three candidates: nonprofit consultant Kara Eastman, Omaha lawyer Ann Ashford and Omaha business owner Gladys Harrison. Eastman has positioned herself as a progressive, while Ashford pitches herself as a moderate. Harrison has touted herself as a unifying voice but hasn't raised nearly as much money or gotten as much attention.

West Virginia, which was also supposed to host its primary on May 12, postponed its election to June 9. Ohio, also a Republican-controlled state, switched its in-person primary to one of vote-by-mail last month.

Meanwhile, it's still unclear whether the long lines and close proximity created during the Wisconsin in-person primary led to a spike in coronavirus cases. A team of epidemiologists and public health experts who examined the potential impact of the election on the spread of COVID-19 in Milwaukee released a study Wednesday that drew no conclusions, in large part because of the lack of widespread testing and contact tracing.

Nebraska has seen more than 8,570 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 100 deaths due to the virus, according to the state's health department.

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