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Lincoln’s voting bench a politics-free way to connect people

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The politics-free polling place showed up on Sheridan Boulevard on the first Tuesday in November.

A small wooden bench with a stone-filled basket in the middle, a slip of paper on either side.

Apple cider lovers to the left.

Hot chocolate fans to the right.

Grab a rock, cast your vote.

People were walking that wide boulevard in record numbers during the pandemic months, eager to be outside and unmasked.

They strolled all summer.

They walked as fall arrived and cold crept in and COVID-19 cases started rising. They were walking when Mary Beth Rice set up her polling place.

The idea came from a friend in Indiana, who sent her a photo of a similar setup there, Rice told the Lincoln Journal Star.

She liked the idea.

And when she spotted a bench in her old neighborhood — set out for the garbage truck — she went into action.

Election Day was looming.

“Everyone was so tense and upset and scared, no matter what side they were on, I thought, I’ll just put it out.”

A lighthearted way to express an opinion, she said.

Something fun. Something that might build community, the way it had in her friend’s Indiana town.

Something that connected people in a time when it was hard to be connected.

And it’s something that’s stuck around long past Biden vs. Trump.

The inaugural election on Sheridan Boulevard went on without dispute. And Rice’s Facebook friends cast their votes, too, like a mail-in ballot without a stamp.

Hot chocolate won, 2 to 1. Next came Batman vs. Superman with a write-in for Wonder Woman. (Batman by a dozen.)

The next week, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups ran away from M&M’s. Mashed potatoes beat out green bean casserole at Thanksgiving.

Winter came and with it snowmen vs. snow angels and “Elf” vs. “Polar Express” and pancakes vs. waffles. (Snowmen, “Elf” and pancakes.)

The neighbors started calling it the Voting Bench.

And they voted, rock by rock. (And when the rocks ran dry, they cast ballots via acorns, mulch, twig, seashell.)

The mailman was known to cast a vote. The FedEx driver. The UPS guy.

All those early-morning and late-evening walkers. Little kids like Linus, Oscar and Margot Swanson from next door.

“It was like this COVID ray of sunshine,” said their mom, Roxane Swanson. “It just became this phenomenon.”

Something fun in a year when fun got the short end of the stick.

Swanson calls Rice the neighborhood Martha Stewart. (Caveat: She’s Martha with the heart of Mary, a faith-filled and compassionate Catholic.)

She’s creative. Always looking for ways to include people in her endeavors.

Rice is a communications consultant and a retreat facilitator. She’s an author and a blogger. She grows flowers for butterflies and for beauty. She’s a baker and a bike rider. She tells funny stories. She’s a five-year cancer survivor who’s raised four great kids. She sends emails with great quotes stuck at the bottom.

Every winter, she sticks a couple of small snowballs in the freezer, and in July, she throws an ice cream social with a snowman centerpiece and raises money for Willie’s Underwear Project. (All the donations go toward undergarments and clothes for school nurses to stash away for kids in need.)

For years, she organized the neighborhood Easter egg hunt. (Now she just plays the part of the Easter Fairy, looking for sad kids who didn’t find enough eggs.)

When she hears about a great idea, she thinks of a way to make it happen.

The Voting Bench has been around for more than six months.

Grilled cheese beat out PB&J. Dark chocolate edged milk chocolate. The Beatles took down the Rolling Stones.

Coke beat Pepsi.

Tulips took down daffodils in a landslide.

Tuesday night tacos and Friday night pizza were a tossup.

Rice isn’t sure how long the tradition will last: “It’s kind of like Zoom and masks. Are they going to go away completely?”

For now, voter apathy doesn’t appear to be an issue.

The candidates change on a random basis. When the basket is empty and people have to resort to mulch, Rice closes the poll and starts a new one.

Hammocks vs. porch swings. Joggers vs. sprinters. Sunrise vs. sunset.

Last week, night owls beat early risers.

A pizza duel is currently underway: pepperoni vs. cheese. (Early numbers favor cheese).

Rice has started compiling a list for summer — frogs vs. toads, tiki torches vs. twinkly lights — and she continues to collect suggestions from the Swanson kids and Facebook friends.

Voting bench vs. no voting bench?

The woman behind the pandemic project seems to know how she’d vote.

“I just think it’s a little bit of joy amidst some of the heartache and struggle in the world,” Rice says. “So why not?”

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