July 31, 2014

Secretary of State will review the closing of Douglas County polling places (AUDIO)

Gov. Dave Heineman has instructed Secretary of State John Gale to review the closing of polling places in Douglas County.

Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps took advantage of a change in state law and closed 166 of the county’s 352 polling places. Phipps estimated the closings would save the county $115,000. The Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest and Nebraskans for Civic Reform had complained the closings would adversely affect the poor and minorities. Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, and former state Sen. Ernie Chambers have requested the Department of Justice investigate the closings.

Heineman made an announced this morning during a telephone news conference with reporters.

“Changes in polling places between the primary election and the general election require the approval of the Secretary of State,” Heineman stated. “I am pleased to announce that Secretary of State John Gale has agreed to work with Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps to determine which Douglas County polling places will be re-opened for the general election.”

Gale had earlier criticized the closings as causing confusion for voters, but determined state law gave Phipps authority to make the closings. The legislature changed the requirements for polling places, increasing the number of voters per precinct from 1,000 to 1,750.

“Our understanding was that that was going to be a longer term process, maybe a five-year process, a ten-year process and Douglas County did jump right in and went to 1750 the first year,” Gale said during the news conference. “So, I guess I would say it was probably too soon, too fast and I think that’s what has caused some of the controversy.”

All four of Nebraska’s largest counties closed polls. None closed as many as Douglas County. While Douglas County closed nearly half its polling places, Hall County closed 30% of its polling places, Sarpy County closed 25% of its polling places and Lancaster County closed 15% of its polling places.

Gale said he understood the push to close polling places in Douglas County. It costs between $600 and $800 per voting precinct to keep a poll open and many of the polls closed have traditionally low voter turnout. Douglas County has purportedly had trouble getting enough people to man the polling sites on Election Day.

Still, Gale suggests Douglas County might have gone too far in closing nearly half its polls.

“There are areas right across the county where I would say some major holes have been created where several polling sites have been eliminated and it has definitely increased driving distances in what I’ll call those holes, those areas where there have been the most significant changes,” according to Gale.

Gale said he has been in conversations with Phipps. He said those conversations will become more serious after the May 15th primary election.

PDF File:  Sen. Ben Nelson Letter to U S Justice Dept

AUDIO: Gov. Dave Heineman announces review of closing of Douglas County polling places. [1:45]

AUDIO: Secretary of State John Gale discusses Douglas County polling places [5:40]