The heat over the closure of nearly half of Douglas County's polling places just got hotter.
The U.S. Justice Department has received at least two requests to investigate possible voter suppression after Election Commissioner Dave Phipps announced he was closing 166 of 352 polling places in the county.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday to probe the closings.
In addition, former State Sen. Ernie Chambers asked U.S. Attorney Deborah Gilg to examine the issue. Gilg referred it to the U.S. Department of Justice's Voting Rights Division, according to a letter she sent to Chambers.
Nelson, in his letter to Holder, wrote that the changes would adversely affect minority and low-income communities.
“It was my hope state officials would thoroughly investigate these concerns, but apparently that isn't going to occur. As a result, I am compelled to request an investigation by the Justice Department,” Nelson wrote.
The Nebraska Secretary of State's Office declined to investigate after requests from state senators and at least two interest groups.
“It's created voter confusion, but that's different from voter suppression,” Secretary of State John Gale said. “We haven't seen any evidence from anybody that this was designed for voter suppression. That's a pretty major accusation.”
Gale said he and his office would cooperate if the Justice Department looked into the issue.
Phipps, too, said he would welcome an investigation if it would help alleviate concerns. He said he believes he acted within the law and did not infringe upon any group's right to vote.
The closures were based in part on a new state law that allows more people to be grouped into a voting precinct. The law, coupled with the increase in early voting and an edict from the Douglas County Board to cut costs, justified the closures, Phipps said.
Roughly a third of county residents vote early, he said, and the number increases in every election cycle.
He said the closures will save about $115,000 for most elections.
“I think I treated everybody the same, treated everybody fairly,” he said. “It's not like everybody had a polling place across the street. There was always travel time involved. This increased that travel.”
Community leaders and voting rights groups have considered filing a lawsuit over the closures. Phipps acknowledged he should have been more open while developing his plan and apologized for sharing the closures so soon before the May 15 primary elections.
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Read Nelson's letter.