Mayor Jim Suttle and the Douglas County Board chairman thought they found a solution to the controversy over the closing of nearly half the county's polling places.
Suttle and board Chairman Marc Kraft on Wednesday proposed public libraries as satellite early voting locations, giving voters more access to the polls. Excess library funds would pay for any costs, they said in a letter to Election Commissioner Dave Phipps, a Republican.
But hours later, Phipps declined the offer, saying it would cost too much money.
That angered critics who are considering asking a judge to halt the poll closings, which they say will create barriers to voting.
Willie Hamilton, a representative of the NAACP, said the proposal from Suttle and Kraft, both Democrats, was a compromise people could live with.
"It's very disheartening that (Phipps) did not take the city and the board up on their offer," Hamilton said. "I don't understand his reasoning."
Early voting in person begins Monday at the Douglas County Election Commission, 225 N. 115th St. Voters also can send in early ballots by mail. The primary election is May 15.
The offer from Suttle and Kraft said there would be little or no cost associated with using 12 public libraries for early voters.
Many library employees are trained in the voting system, and volunteers would do some of the work, said Suttle's spokeswoman, Aida Amoura. The letter also said Secretary of State John Gale's office would provide money for more training.
Phipps said he would have to station a full-time staff member at each public library, and the training would be too costly. He said his office would have to supply each library with 186 different ballot combinations.
"The cost is tremendous," Phipps said. "The logistics are very difficult."
He said he had told Suttle's office that the plan was not possible even before the letter was sent.
Phipps was referring to a discussion of adding satellite voting sites only in north and South Omaha. But that was before he closed 166 polling places, Amoura said.
David Dover, Suttle's deputy chief of staff, said the city already holds some voting equipment that can be used, which he said could lower costs.
"We can easily do some of this with very minimal cost," Dover said. "We're still kind of confused where the huge cost is."
Amoura said Suttle was trying to help.
"This is really, truly an attempt to try to find a solution for the election commissioner and to find solutions for the voters," she said.
Kraft called Phipps "an embarrassment to the governor," referring to Gov. Dave Heineman, who appointed Phipps in 2005.
Kraft said he's heard from about three dozen constituents who oppose the poll closings.
"In my opinion, he's (Phipps) looking for every excuse to justify not allowing additional access to the polls," he said.
Phipps planned the poll closings after 2010 Census population figures were released. He said he was trying to save money for taxpayers, to the tune of $115,000 in nonpresidential elections.
A coalition of about 20 groups say the plan will restrict access to voting, especially for those who don't have a car or are disabled. The Nebraska Democratic Party accused Phipps of trying to suppress the turnout of minority voters.
Phipps apologized for not seeking public comment before closing polling places. He said he would consider asking Gale to reopen polls after the primary but before the November general election. He said he didn't intend to disenfranchise anyone.
A voting rights group and a public service law firm asked Gale on Wednesday to investigate Phipps. Gale's chief election deputy said he would look at their letter and respond soon.
World-Herald staff writer Juan Perez Jr. contributed to this report.
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