Community groups and a state senator want the Douglas County Election Commissioner's Office investigated for its role in crafting legislation that shuttered dozens of polling places across the county this year.
They said the closings confused large numbers of voters during the primary and Tuesday's general election.
Emails exchanged between Election Commissioner Dave Phipps and other officials during the drafting of the legislation, they said, suggest a conflict of interest.
“We are dismayed about the implications of an election commissioner's involvement in such legislation,” Carolina Quezada, executive director of the Latino Center of the Midlands, said Wednesday.
“This would be an affront to our democratic process and an affront to the impartiality and fairness that is expected from public officials holding such positions.”
Phipps dismissed the group's accusations and acknowledged his role in writing most of Legislative Bill 449. The bill led to a reduction of polling places in Omaha and sparked controversy on whether that move was intended to confuse voters and suppress voting, particularly in lower-income, minority sections of Omaha that are dominated by Democrats.
After a public outcry, Phipps reopened 28 polling places for the general election.
“The allegation that I was involved in crafting LB 449 is absolutely correct,” said Phipps, a Republican. But he said his intent wasn't malevolent.
Rather, he said, the bill aimed to accomplish several tasks that would save money and streamline county election operations.
“This precinct-size business seems to overshadow everything, but it's one small part of a very large bill that does a number of different things for our office and voters across the state of Nebraska,” he said.
“I'm not sure where these behind-the-scenes machinations are supposedly happening here,” Phipps added. “I don't like to say it's laughable, but it seems laughable to me.”
The coalition of groups calling for an investigation includes Nebraskans for Civic Reform, the Nebraska ACLU, Black Men United of Omaha, Nebraska Appleseed and VOICE Omaha.
State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, a Democrat, said emails between Phipps and state officials showed “plotting behind the scenes to pass legislation designed to cause political chaos by dramatically altering voting precincts.”
Mello delivered a letter Wednesday asking a legislative committee to probe the drafting and passage of the bill, along with Phipps' involvement.
“Are they going to investigate themselves as well?” Phipps said of the Legislature. “They are the ones who voted for this bill.”
Nebraskans for Civic Reform released 14 emails indicating that Phipps, on Oct. 14, 2010, provided “legislative ideas” that included increasing the size of voting precincts from no more than 1,000 voters to no more than 3,000.
“Using voter turnout predictions and with the increase of early voting, you should be able to have much larger precincts,” Phipps said in the email. It was sent to John Murante, a legislative aide for Sen. John Nelson of Omaha, who introduced a measure calling for that change.
The bill was eventually amended and passed, upping the voter-per-precinct requirement to no more than 1,750 voters. Murante, a Republican, won election Tuesday as a state senator representing the Gretna area.
The emails include discussion between Phipps and Murante about objections being raised by Republican Secretary of State John Gale and his office about LB 449.
Phipps, in an email dated May 23, 2011, asks when a “wonderful celebration” will be planned due to the bill's passage.
He was responding to an email from Murante telling Phipps, Sarpy County Election Commissioner Wayne Bena and Carlos Castillo, a political ally of Gov. Dave Heineman and director of the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services, that LB 449 had been passed over the objections of Gale.
“Good (John Nelson) conquers evil (you know who),” wrote Murante. “... Special thanks to the evil mastermind behind this operation (Dave Phipps) and Secretary of State-in-waiting Wayne Bena for their work on LB 449.”
Adam Morfeld, executive director of Nebraskans for Civic Reform, said the organization would soon compile a report about Election Day difficulties at the polls.
Contact the writer:
Contact the writer: