Phipps emails show coordination over poll closures


November 9th, 2012

Omaha, NE – Newly-released emails show the Douglas County Election Commissioner coordinated with state lawmakers in an apparently partisan effort to close polling places in Douglas County this year. Publisher of The Reader John Heaston first broke the story and he’s been reporting on it all year. Robyn Wisch checked in with him for the latest.

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Robyn Wisch, KVNO News: John, thanks so much for coming in today.

John Heaston, The Reader: Thanks Robyn.

RW: You began reporting on this story earlier this year after several poll closures in Douglas County were first announced. Take us back to the beginning of the story.

Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps. (Photo by Angel Martin)

JH: Well, the closing of the polling places was just so drastic and so unheard of it kind of came to how did we get here? There was clearly a pattern of decisions in the Republican Party to do what they could to kind of affect the vote, particularly as it appeals to Democrats. And I guess that’s politics, you know, these things happen.

But there were four major efforts in the Legislature of which two made it through. So voter ID didn’t make it through and turning Nebraska into a “winner take all” for the Electoral College – the infamous “blue dot” of 2008 – that was stopped in committee as well.

But there were two that did pass the Legislature, and one was redistricting that roughly gave Republicans about a 4,000 plus advantage in Douglas County, the second district. And then LB449 that tweaked a number of election things – but probably the biggest impact and the one that was discussed at the time was increasing the number of voters per precinct and thus polling places.

RW: So moving us forward. LB449 led to a number of polling closures in Douglas County earlier this year. And we saw some of the results of that on Primary Day where there was a lot of confusion about polling locations – particularly in north and south Omaha. And that was shown too in your reporting. You analyzed the poll closures and showed a significant difference in what it meant for voters in north and south Omaha versus those in west Omaha. The Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps re-opened a number of polling sites after Primary Day. But the story doesn’t end there.

JH: Of course at that point, maybe the damage had been done. You know, creating the confusion, creating the uncertainty. These are the things that make voting harder and can hold turnout down. So we’ll see what the turnout numbers were in this last election. They’re not up on the election commissioner’s website yet.

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 after seeing that, you know the election commissioner is a very affable guy. Certainly will laugh at his own expense, very easy going, but he’s also a fairly sharp cookie. And it was really hard for us to believe that he didn’t know what kind of impact this was going to have.

And so at that point, it was like, wow this is a pretty sophisticated move. Very bold. No one’s gone to this level anywhere in the country. And there are all kinds of voter suppression things that are out there.

RW: So you filed an open records request and you got back emails that show that the election commissioner, Dave Phipps, was involved in crafting LB449 which led to these poll closures. He’d previously suggested he had not been involved. Tell us about what you found.

JH: So we got 25,000 pages of emails that they had kind of gone through. But in that big pile, we found a couple of nuggets. And what it showed was that Phipps along with the Sarpy County Election Commissioner Wayne Bena had really coordinated with Senator John Nelson’s legislative aide John Murante, who just was elected to the Unicameral, which is a whole other point, but that they really coordinated on the details of the legislation.

But it shows there was kind of an effort there. It wasn’t the Unicameral made them do it. They were very involved in making it happen.

In the story of course there’s one where ‘We’ve overcome the evil guy, John Gale, the Secretary of State’ and you know ‘Our evil mastermind Dave Phipps, congratulations’ and to Secretary of State-in waiting Bena. So apparently Bena’s got some bigger political aspirations.

So I think it was very telling. And I’m sure maybe it was a bunch of guys going ‘Haha, ho ho.’ But it’s kind of telling to the coordination that went on.

RW: Dave Phipps has responded to this. He’s said he didn’t do anything wrong, and that the reason behind the poll closures was always to cut costs and save taxpayer money. But in your reporting you’ve noted that Douglas County spends less per voter than some of the other largest counties in the state like Lancaster and Sarpy, and raised the question of whether that should be the focus when the election commission is supposed to help make sure everyone can vote. So what do you think the take-away is from this?

JH: Well, the other thing that I think it really looks at is the arrangement for election commissioners in Douglas County, Sarpy County and Lancaster County. The three largest counties, and I don’t know the full answer to this, are appointed by the Governor. Nebraska’s other 90 counties, they’re part of the county election process. And so does that create too much of an invitation for partisanship and for partisanship getting into the administration of elections?

Clearly, we really think that this was, and there’s a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that this was, a partisan decision. Certainly impacted a group, you know, your opposing party more than it did you.

So that’s something I think we need to look at as a state. There seems to be across-the-board respect for the job that Secretary of State John Gale does. He seems to be above that. He seems to respect his position in a way that he understands he’s the Secretary of State for all voters and not just for a particular party. And he’s a Republican. He’s been a life-long Republican, very active. But in some of these offices, there’s kind of a higher duty.

RW: We’ll continue to watch this story. Thanks for your reporting on this John, and thanks for coming in.

JH: Thanks for having me.


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