“Mass confusion” at some polling sites

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May 15th, 2012

Omaha, NE – Nebraska voters are heading to the polls today for the statewide primary election. And here in Douglas County, it has either been “mass confusion” or a “typical” primary day… depending on who you talk to.

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Election officials were prepared for a confusing day. In February, the Douglas County Election Commission made a controversial decision to shut down a significant number of polling places in an effort to trim the budget. (The Commission reduced the number of voter precincts by almost half: from 352 to 185, which translates to a reduction in polling places of 85: from 265 to 180)

A quiet polling site near downtown Benson. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

The poll closures have come under heavy criticism. U.S. Senator Ben Nelson called for a federal investigation, and the Department of Justice is monitoring the election. Nelson, a Democrat, called the closures politically motivated, saying they were an attempt to suppress minority voter turnout in a presidential election year. Dave Phipps, the Douglas County Election Commissioner who was appointed by Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, says he made the decision purely to save taxpayer funds, approximately $115,000.

Tuesday afternoon, Phipps said his office has received calls from confused or upset voters, but not as many as he expected. “Nothing unusual,” he said. “Obviously there’s some people who just didn’t like the change, or some people who just couldn’t find their polling place or didn’t know where it was. But that’s typical. We get that every single election.”

“All in all, it’s just been a normal primary election for us,” Phipps said.

However, Preston Love, Jr. had a different take. He heads the North Omaha Voter Coalition, a nonpartisan group that encourages voter participation, and said there has been “mass confusion” from voters in North Omaha, where a majority of the poll closures occurred.

“Voters are very confused about where to go,” Love said. “Voters have been turned away from the polling place that they thought they should go to.” Love said many of the voters who were turned away ended up not casting their ballots.

Love added voters are not aware of their ability to cast a provisional ballot, and that his organization needs to do more to educate voters on that option. But the rules of provisional ballots have also caused confusion. Dave Phipps said provisional ballots are not an option if a voter is casting a ballot in the wrong location. “Voters must vote in the right place,” he said, adding if voters insist on a provisional ballot, they can be provided with one, but it won’t be counted.

John Ewing, who’s running for the Democratic nomination in the 2nd Congressional District race, released a statement Tuesday afternoon, saying there have been “numerous reports of voter confusion at several polling locations.” Ewing said residents of Omaha Housing Authority’s Benson Tower had expected to cast their ballots in their own building, which is a polling location, but were turned away as the apartment tower is not the assigned voting location. The statement said transportation was being sent to Benson Tower to shuttle voters to their correct polling site.

Love added he’s seen lower-than-expected turnout, which he blames on the poll confusion. He said demand for rides to the polls, which his organization provides, has been low. “I feel the reason for the low request for rides is because people have either voted early or just said I don’t want to go through all of that and decided not to vote,” he said. “And that’s a bad thing.”

Phipps says his office is expecting approximately 21% of registered voters to turn up. That’s up from 12 percent in 2010 and 16.6 percent in the presidential primary of 2008.

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