North Omaha leaders call election day “unacceptable”
May 17th, 2012
Omaha, NE – A group of North Omaha leaders are calling on the Douglas County Election Commission to heed what it calls mass confusion that occurred at the polls Tuesday.
“This community will not stand by and let our voters be disrespected and disenfranchised,” said Preston Love, Jr., standing before a monument to the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in North Omaha, flanked by a group of elected and community leaders.
Love heads the North Omaha Voter Coalition, and at a press conference Thursday, he said Tuesday’s primary election was deliberately fraught with confusion and misdirection. “Faced with closed polls, miscommunications, election commission neglect, poor poll worker preparation and more,” Love said, “many north Omaha voters were denied and missed the opportunity to vote Tuesday in the primary.”
“Unacceptable,” he said.
Love referred to a controversial decision in February to close almost half the voting precincts in Douglas County in a budget-cutting move. He said the closures were disproportionately high in poor and minority neighborhoods, and voters had to travel further to their new polling locations. His group provided rides to the polls, he said, but that wasn’t sufficient.
“People that just can’t get there, what are they supposed to do?” he said. “Yes, we provide rides to the polls, but what was the Election Commissioner suggesting that they do?”
Love was joined by elected officials including Omaha Councilmember Ben Gray and State Senator Brenda Council, who represents North Omaha in the Legislature. Council described the day as “absolute and total chaos.” That’s a very different description than that of Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps, who says he did not receive more complaints than a typical primary day.
“To say that it was no more than normal, I take grave exception to,” Council said. “Because I don’t know how he registers that. Do you have to call and say I’m complaining? Or just to call that where am I supposed to go?”
Council said she heard reports from the Urban League office in North Omaha of people on hold for over 40 minutes to the Douglas County Election Commission trying to find out where their correct polling site was. Council called on Phipps to provide an account of how many calls were received, but Phipps said his office does not track those numbers.
“We look through any problem items or issue items that need resolved or need followed up on,” Phipps said. “We, of course, take a look at everything that we can to make sure that our training techniques are getting better, our poll workers are trained better. Those sorts of things we look at after each election.”
Phipps said his office has tried to make the voting process as easy as possible, and that people were notified of their polling site at least seven weeks before the election.
“We’ve certainly been in the news over the last two months,” Phipps said. “They knew that there was polling changes. So I think the idea that nobody knew there were polling changes is a little unfair.”
Phipps added his office is planning to re-open some poll locations before the November general election. That was one of the recommendations made by the group, which dropped off nine at the Commissioner’s office. Those include setting up computer access at polls for voters to check their correct locations and conducting a “common sense review” of polling sites.
The Department of Justice was monitoring Tuesday’s election. Love said he had been in contact with inspectors throughout primary day. Phipps said his office has had no contact since before the election.
Editor’s note: An additional note on this story: One point that seems to be causing confusion is exactly when provisional ballots should be provided to voters.
At the press conference Thursday, Preston Love Jr. and Sen. Brenda Council said voters should have been provided provisional ballots when they mistakenly arrived at the wrong location, and that instead they were turned away. Love also said his group planned to improve voter education to ensure voters know they have the option to request a provisional ballot.
However, Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps said Nebraska statute states a voter should not be provided a provisional ballot if they are at the wrong site. Voters have to vote in the right location, Phipps said, because ballots are tied to precincts. If voters insist on a provisional ballot, Phipps said they could be provided one but if they are in the wrong location that ballot will not be counted.
The relevant Nebraska Statutes regarding provisional balloting are 32-914.01 through 32-915.01. Statute 32-915 explains most of the criteria to receive a provisional ballot. To read statute in full, click here.
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