LINCOLN — Douglas County's recent election controversy loomed Thursday over two legislative bills that could change how election commissioners are appointed in Nebraska's largest counties.
Election Commissioner Dave Phipps wasn't directly discussed during public hearings before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
But allegations of voter suppression that followed Phipps' decision to close nearly a third of the county's polling places during last year's election season was plainly on the minds of committee members.
State Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, sponsor of both bills, said that as a Democrat he knows some will assume he's targeting the Republicans at the center of the controversy — Phipps and Gov. Dave Heineman, who appointed Phipps to the office.
But Karpisek denied being motivated by partisanship and said a clause could be added to delay enactment until after Heineman leaves office.
“I know this brings up a lot of emotion,” he said. “I apologize for that.”
Legislative Bill 183 would end the governor's appointment of election commissioners in counties with more than 100,000 population, a list currently limited to Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy Counties. Karpisek said the commissioners essentially work for the counties, so they should be appointed by county boards.
“It's a local control issue,” he said, noting that the three counties account for nearly half of the state's voters.
Under current law, county boards appoint election commissioners in four medium-sized counties while elected county clerks manage elections in the remaining 86.
The Omaha NAACP and the Heartland Workers Center, an Omaha labor organization, supported the bill.
Heineman and Secretary of State John Gale both submitted letters in opposition. In an unusual move, Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, who serves on the committee, was allowed to testify against the bill. Lautenbaugh, a Republican, is a former election commissioner.
Gale, who has said Phipps acted within the law when he closed the polling places, indicated there are several safeguards that protect the integrity of elections run by governor appointees.
The law requires a member of a different political party to serve as the appointed commissioner's chief deputy. A commissioner accused of fraud or abuse of power can be investigated by the secretary of state or removed by the governor.
Lautenbaugh said the state law was changed decades ago to give governors appointment authority in the large counties. The change came about to thwart a corrupt, party-boss system that had emerged in Omaha.
“There is a historical reason why we set up this system,” he said.
When Lautenbaugh said critics have launched “unsubstantiated attacks” against Phipps, Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, the committee chairman, told his colleague to stick to historical information.
The related measure, LB 188, would require the Legislature to approve election commissioner appointments made by the governor. It garnered the support of Common Cause Nebraska and the NAACP.
Adam Morfeld, director of Nebraskans for Civic Reform, said giving lawmakers oversight over the appointments would provide “critical checks and balances.”
“I think there's more room for accountability,” he said.
No one testified against LB 188, and the committee took no action on either bill.
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