On Wednesday, June 20th, the day The Reader hits the streets, Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps will hold a press conference with Secretary of State John Gale to announce his plan to add 30 new precincts and 27 additional polling places across the county for the fall general election, bringing the total number of polls to 207. During the past week, Phipps attended public meetings in south and north Omaha in an attempt to quell the public outrage that followed his surprise announcement in March of the drastic cuts in the number of polling places scheduled to occur during a presidential election year.
But is 207 polling places adequate? Will the new locations solve the voter confusion experienced during the primary? No clear consensus or rousing support was evident at either public forum. At both meetings, Kris Pierce of the Douglas County Democratic Party asked Phipps if he would add more polling places based on public input, and he responded, “Absolutely.” After June 20th, the new precincts and poll locations will be given to the various media outlets, published on the commission’s website, and sent to all the Omaha Public Libraries for all to view. Voters can contact the Election Commission via letter, email, or phone call to let them know if there are any changes they think should be made. On July 3rd, after a period of less than two weeks, the public input phase will end.
The Election Commission address, e-mail and phone number are printed at the end of this article. The Douglas County Election Commission also has a facebook page where voters can leave comments.
At the north Omaha meeting on June 18, Phipps made a disappointing announcement. The county budget review committe recommended cutting his proposed 2012/2013 budget proposal by $200,000 meaning that Phipps will have $100,000 less to spend on the 2012 presidential election than he had in 2008. Phipps had recently requested an additional $50,000 to cover increased printing and mailing costs but if the reduced budget goes through, he will have to determine where to make $200,000 in cuts instead.
At both meetings, the Election Commissioner was joined by members of his staff as well as a panel of community activists from north and south Omaha who have been meeting with him privately to redraw precincts and increase the number of polls for the general election this November. At the June 13 south Omaha meeting in Our Lady of Guadalupe church hall, Sergio Sosa of the Heartland Workers Center and Carolina Quezada of the Latino Center of the Midlands moderated the forum with Phipps. Spanish translations were provided for a powerpoint presentation, Phipps’s speech and every audience comment or question.
Gary Gernandt represents south Omaha’s 4th Ward on the City Council. He said, “We knew that we had to change our City Council wards based on the new precincts but we did not have advance warning of how many polling place cuts there would be.” Gernandt criticized Phipps for his “silent and surgical” methods and said most of his constituents have expressed a desire to see all of the polling places restored for the presidential election.
The June 18 north Omaha meeting was broadcast from the studio of Channel 22 television on North 24th Street. Cheryl Weston and Willie Hamilton preempted their regularly scheduled shows to moderate the evening. State Senator Brenda Council, who represents the 11th District, admonished Phipps for suggesting that the decrease in the number of precincts was mandated by the change in law. “It wasn’t the law that required the number of precincts to be reduced. It was at the discretion accorded to the commissioner that allowed for the reduction,” she said. “That’s what I want to be clear on.”
Referring to the voter confusion that was caused by the reductions and new polling places, Willie Hamilton asked Phipps, “Why can’t we just go back to the original polling places?” Phipps told him, “Chances are your polling place might have changed without the reductions.” Sergio Sosa asked, “Do you anticipate that the magical numbers 30 and 27 will alleviate the confusion?” Phipps said, “I don’t know if it will alleviate the confusion, it will alleviate the travel distance.”
Cheryl Weston urged voters to contact the county commissioners to tell them that the budget should be increased to cover voter education, to ensure that people know where to vote. That is when Phipps disclosed that his proposed budget had been cut by $200,000 and he added, “I won’t have the money to do that.”
Barry Thomas, a social studies teacher at North High, reminded Phipps of the long lines that occurred during the 2008 presidential election. He asked how fewer polling places could handle another large voter turnout. Phipps said there would be 10 poll workers at each location, twice as many as there were at the primary. After the meeting, Phipps agreed that if the number of polling locations had been kept at 268, there would have been 1,340 poll workers. But at 207 locations with 10 workers, that number will rise to 2,070 poll workers, but only for the presidential election. During the next five primaries, city or gubernatorial elections, there will be only be 5 poll workers at 207 locations for a total of 1,035 workers each election. Phipps anticipates a savings from that.
Douglas County Election Commission
225 North 115th Street
Omaha, Nebraska 68154