Data analysis backs poll closure complaints

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June 6th, 2012

Omaha, NE – Data analysis of recent poll closures in Douglas County show they disproportionately impacted poor and minority neighborhoods.

The Reader conducted heavy data analysis into the closures, after it was announced in February that a third would be closed. The closures were decided as a cost-cutting move by Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps. But when the state held its Primary Election on May 15, some voters in North Omaha complained of “mass confusion” at the polls, saying voters not sure where to go and had to travel longer distances to cast their ballots.

The Reader’s investigation revealed the numbers back those complaints. KVNO News’ Robyn Wisch sat down with the reporter on the story, Kietryn Zychal, and the publisher of The Reader, John Heaston.

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RW: John, tell us about the data you used here, and how did you analyze it?

HEASTON: What we wanted to do was … there were a lot of things that suggested this was impacting east Omaha harder than it did the rest of the city. And we wanted to look at what was the data, what were the facts? And in order to do that, we were able to get a copy of all of the registered voters in 2008 and a list of their polling places, and do the same for 2012. So we geo-coded to about a 99% accuracy all of the voters and the distance to their polling place. We compared that between 2008 and 2012 and then we divided the city into quadrants using 72nd and Dodge as the center – it’s the traditional kind of dividing line, plus it goes very neatly with census tracts, so that we could lay demographic data over this.

And so what we found, what the hard numbers say, is if you live east of 72nd Street, the percentage increase in the distance to your polling place is twice that if you live west of 72nd Street.

The Reader's analysis of poll closures show the poorer, less educated and more diverse your neighborhood in Omaha, the greater the percent change in distance to your polling site in 2012. (Graphic credit The Reader)

So then once we put the demographic data, it kind of jumped even more. So, if you lived in a census tract with a median household income between $25,000 and $50,000, the percentage increase in distance to your polling place is three times that if you live in a census tract where the median household income is over $50,000.

Now if you live in a census tract with a minority population that’s greater than 20% then the percentage increase to your polling place is five times that if you lived in a census tract where the minority population is 10-20%. So the more diversified parts of the city, the increase in distance to their polling place is five times that if you live in parts of the city that are less diverse.

Then the other big standout was education. If you live in a census tract where less than 10% of the population has a college degree, the percentage increase in distance to your polling place is five times that if you live in a census tract where more than half the population has a college degree.

RW: So what we’re saying here, basically, is the poorer, less educated and more diverse your neighborhood is – the greater the percentage change to your new polling site. Now when the cuts were made, and after Primary Day, the Election Commissioner received heavy criticism for the decision. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that Dave Phipps has been appointed to his position by a Republican Governor, and he’s making these changes in Nebraska’s most traditionally-Democratic neighborhoods – as we’re heading to a major presidential election in November. But Phipps has said this is not politically motivated. It’s about costs. Kietryn, you sat down with him for an extensive interview, how did he explain his decision making to you?

ZYCHAL: It was actually two interviews. The first one was 2.5 hours long. I had like six pages of typed questions for the guy. And then the second interview was an hour and a half long, and so I spent four hours with him. I think that he’s a numbers guy. And he wasn’t thinking of the reaction people would have. And the way the Nebraska statutes are written, Chapter 32, he doesn’t report to anybody. There’s no one who overrides his decisions. So he knew that he had the authority to do what he thought was best from a numbers perspective. And I just don’t that he calculated the reaction.

RW: Some of that reaction has been calls to have the polling sites re-opened, or some of them re-opened, before November. How are those negotiations proceeding, and where do we go from here?

ZYCHAL: Phipps is meeting with two separate sets of activists from North Omaha and South Omaha on the one hand, and then people who are appointed to be an advisory committee. The advisory committee meetings are closed and the meetings with the activists are not closed. And what they’re doing is they’re working on, brainstorming on, which polling places should be re-opened and there will also be some precincts that will be re-drawn.

I know that Sergio Sosa from the Heartland Workers Coalition is involved in that. And he was hoping that there would be like 40 or more places re-opened so that would bring the total number of polling places to 225. The last time I interviewed Phipps, he said that he was hoping to keep that number to 20.

So again, I think the number is not important. What they have to look at is the experience of voters on the ground. You look at this thing quantitatively, you have to look at it qualitatively.

RW: Kietryn Zychal is a freelance reporter for The Reader. She joined me in the KVNO News studios with John Heaston, the paper’s publisher. Thank you both for coming in.

HEASTON/ZYCHAL: Thank you.

Read the full report. View the data analyzed in this story.

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