Heineman announces plan to re-examine polling site cuts

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April 23rd, 2012

Omaha, NE – Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman has asked Secretary of State John Gale to take another look at Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps’ controversial decision to close down nearly half the voting precincts in Douglas county. The decision by Phipps has led Senator Ben Nelson to call for a federal investigation into whether the decision to shut down polling places in Douglas County is an attempt to suppress minority voter turnout. Joe Jordan of Nebraska Watchdog attended a meeting between Gale and Phipps, and then sat down with KVNO’s Ben Bohall for this update.

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Ben Bohall, KVNO News: What was the nature of the Governor’s announcement this morning?

Joe Jordan, Nebraska Watchdog: He was announcing, along with Secretary of State John Gale, that following the primary, Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps, in conjunction with the Secretary of State’s office, will be going over the list of polling places in Douglas County- taking a look at the 160 polling places that were closed. Before the general election, they’ll decide that some of those closed polling places will be re-opened for the presidential election in November. Mr. Gale didn’t say how many. He did say, however, that there are some gaping holes in Douglas County where people have to drive significant distances to get to their polling places under their new plan, which is being studied once again.

Gov. Heineman has asked Secretary of State John Gale to meet with Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps to take another look at Phipps' controversial decision to close down nearly half the voting precincts in Douglas county (Courtesy photo).

Bohall: You recently spoke with Phipps. What were some of the initial reasons he gave you for deciding on those cuts?

Jordan: The first reason he cites, is this was a plan to save money. He felt by closing these polling places, he could save Douglas County tax payers about $115,000. In addition, this was prompted by the census that came back showing how many people now live in Douglas County. Mr. Phipps says he reviewed that along with recent election results- finding out how many people were participating in the election process. From that determination, he decided Douglas County didn’t need as many polling places as it recently had. Now, he almost closed just about half the polling places in the county-where in Sarpy County, they closed about 25 percent and in Lancaster County about 15 percent. So, the move in Douglas County was significantly greater than other counties nearby.

Bohall: Now, Phipps made this announcement back in February, but at the time, we didn’t hear much in the way of public criticism. Why has this all of a sudden become such a hotbed issue?

Jordan: I think once some news organizations realized what had happened…it was pretty much done below the radar. Mr. Phipps had talked with a few people, but he’s acknowledged he didn’t do it very publicly. Until it caught fire in the news, most people didn’t realize that all these polling places were being closed. He held a meeting with City Councilman Ben Gray and Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rogers. They weren’t pleased with this decision and also promulgated some of the news coverage that went with this.

Bohall: The Nebraska Democratic Party recently issued a call for Governor Dave Heineman to fire Phipps, who is a fellow Republican. In the Governor’s press conference this morning, did he give any indication about the fate of Phipps’ position in the near future?

Jordan: Yes, he was very clear. I point-blank asked him if Dave Phipps’ job was in jeopardy, if he was going to fire Dave Phipps. Governor Heineman told me no. He said the reason for that is that he felt Phipps had made, in effect, an honest mistake. He’s apologized for the mistake. According to the Governor, the real focus shouldn’t be on Dave Phipps, it should be on low turnouts in Douglas County- particularly in primaries. Secretary of State John Gale had noted during the same conference, that historically, Douglas County turnout in primaries is significantly low- one of the lowest counties in the state. The Governor says that’s where the focus should be- getting people to the polls, not taking Dave Phipps out of his job.

Bohall: Joe Jordan of Nebraska Watchdog, thanks for joining us.

Jordan: You’re welcome Ben, anytime.

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