LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman stepped into the Douglas County polling place controversy Monday, announcing that some of the closed voting locations will be reopened, though not in time for the May 15 primary election.
Several critics of Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps said they're glad polling places will reopen, but that Heineman should have acted sooner.
In an effort to “help” the county's top election official, Heineman said, he asked Secretary of State John Gale to work with Phipps to decide which polling places would be reopened for the general election.
The Republican governor, who appointed Phipps, said he stepped in after talking with Gale about the controversy, which he said had wrongly become a partisan issue.
Phipps has said he made a mistake and apologized.
“I'm trying to help in that regard by bringing in the secretary of state,” Heineman said.
The governor said Phipps' job is not in jeopardy.
Heineman said calls by U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and others to launch a federal Department of Justice investigation into the closing of nearly half the county's polling places had no bearing on his decision to get involved in the matter.
“I think Sen. Nelson has made this a more partisan issue than it needs to be,” Heineman said.
Several community leaders — including State Sen. Brenda Council — said federal investigators have contacted them.
Nelson's spokesman said Gale should have investigated Phipps.
“It wasn't until after state lawmakers requested a state inquiry and were turned down that Sen. Nelson sought a federal investigation,” Nelson spokesman Jake Thompson said in an email.
The polling place debate started in late February, when Phipps announced he was closing 166 of 352 polling places. The closings were projected to save $115,000 per election and were in response to a state law passed in 2011 that allowed more voters per polling place.
Though Phipps has characterized the closings as a cost-saving measure to reflect a drop in voting at polling places, Democrats and community leaders contend it was an effort to suppress voting, particularly among members of minority groups and the elderly.
Preston Love, who leads get-out-the-vote efforts in north Omaha, said community leaders must now focus on making sure the primary goes smoothly.
However, Heineman's announcement “is not news to celebrate,” Love wrote in an email. “This is news that is needed. The Governor leadership should have been present for the primary.”
Council said she wishes Heineman would have stepped in sooner, but she is glad some polling places will be reopened.
Phipps now should do what he didn't the first time around: seek public input about where polling places should be, Council said.
“He needs to have public forums throughout the county,” she said.
Heineman and Gale, who participated in a press conference call Monday, said they didn't know how many voting locations would be restored. They said it was too late to change polling places for the May 15 primary because state law bars any changes after ballots have been printed.
Phipps said he hopes to have a plan ready by the end of July.
“Talking to the secretary of state after the (primary) election, we'll evaluate how many need to be changed and we'll do that,” Phipps said.
The additional polling places will be spread throughout the county, not focused in eastern Omaha, he said.
Gale said Monday that Phipps moved “probably too soon, too fast” in his sweeping overhaul of voting districts.
The other largest counties all reduced their polling places, but the other reductions ranged from about 15 percent to 30 percent, Gale said.
The matter will probably return during the next legislative session. Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha said he probably will propose a bill that would limit the governor's power to unilaterally appoint election commissioners in Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster Counties.
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