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Critics say February bond vote in Lincoln amounts to voter suppresion

By   /   November 26, 2013  /   No Comments

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. — The Lincoln school board will decide Tuesday night whether to schedule a Feb. 11 special election on a $153 million bond issue to build a new elementary school, middle school and career academy.

VOTING IN FEBRUARY: Lincoln’s school board is poised to schedule a $153 million bond issue in a February special election, even though the statewide primary election is just around the corner in May. Some say that’s designed to improve its chance of passage.

February, you ask? Why hold an election in February when there’s a primary election right around the corner in May and a general election in November? Elementary, my dear Watson: That improves the chances of passage, some say.

Superintendent Steve Joel said holding an election in February would allow the school district to take advantage of low interest rates and begin construction next summer, which Lincoln Public Schools claims would save nearly $1 million on construction costs due to inflation.

But skeptics say LPS officials must have a crystal ball if they know what interest rates are going to do in the coming months and years, and using the logic of “the sooner we start, the more we’ll save on construction” they should’ve held the election last year.

A political consultant who has worked on local bond issues said the real reason LPS likes to float big bond issues during special elections in February (as it did in 2006) is that elderly people who no longer have kids in school are less able and willing to go out and vote on a cold winter day.

The consultant declined to be named because he has worked on bond issues in the past and hopes to do so in the future.

Special elections tend to bring out voters who really care about the issue — teachers, parents, builders — and improve the chances of passage, he said. If the election were held during the statewide primary in May, the pro-passage folks would have to pony up some serious coin to buy TV and radio ads that would be competing with a dogfight of a race for the GOP nomination for governor and U.S. Senate.

Also, lots of conservative, right-wing Republicans will be coming out to vote for their favorite Republican in the primary — and you know how much Republicans like tax increases.

Oh, they’ll come up with all kinds of other reasons for the February election, the consultant predicted, without mentioning this factor. Indeed, LPS officials argue a February election would save money because construction could begin in summer rather than fall, so the district wouldn’t have to pay people overtime to work after school and on weekends.

Indeed, Joel told us the assertion that senior citizens don’t vote as much in the winter was “debatable.”

“It appears that, at least in Lincoln, there traditionally is significant participation by this group in school elections,” Joel said via email.

School board president Don Mayhew said via email “I’m not sure I agree with your consultant’s opinion on the elderly vote in Lincoln” and said the primary considerations for him are costs and timeliness.

People like Roger Yant aren’t buying that. The former Lincoln mayoral candidate and part-time gadfly said a special election isn’t needed.

“That is the way they get things passed is to have them by themselves,” Yant said. “Most people will not go to the trouble to go vote on this one issue and the people that are for it get their troops together to vote, thus it will pass like everything else that has had its own special election.”

Yant is skeptical of claims a February election would save nearly $1 million. Holding a special election would cost up to $250,000, while holding the election in conjunction with the primary would cost LPS up to $55,000.

“They say this so they can have a special election,” he said. “I do not trust them in any way. They need to do it in May.”

Gerard Harbison, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who writes a blog called The Right Wing Professor, accused the school district of turnout suppression on Twitter. LPS responded by saying the election could be done by mail. That’s because Election Commissioner Dave Shively has said he may do a vote-by-mail election, not because LPS is clamoring for one.

“Everyone gets one mailed to them,” LPS responded to Harbison on Twitter. “How would that be suppression?”

To which Harbison responded: “A large fraction of people hardly ever use mail anymore, and won’t bother. Don’t be disingenuous; we both know what you’re up to.”

Joel said if the election is done by mail, that would take away weather as a “perceived strategy to only have those in favor participate.”

“In elections where this is the case, participation increases dramatically,” Joel said.

While some studies have shown voting by mail increases participation, other studies found otherwise.

A Washington county that moved to a mail vote did not see an increase in turnout as projected, according to the Seattle Times.

Our political consultant said if he were working on the bond issue, he’d say the same things.

“What better way to get the turnout we want to than to have it on a cold-ass February day?” he asked.

A recent study found holding local elections in off-years — rather than with state and federal elections — reduces voter turnout, increases costs per voter and attracts fewer minority voters.

In response to that, Mayhew said it’s his job to put together “the best possible bond project,” to get information out to the public and make the best use of taxpayer dollars.

“Finding ways to increase voter turnout is Dave Shively’s job,” Mayhew said.

The school board will take up the issue at tonight’s meeting at 6 p.m. in the first floor board room at Lincoln Public Schools District Office, 5905 O St.

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org.

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Deena Winter has been a journalist for over 20 years, writing stories for the Northwood Gleaner, Bismarck Tribune, Associated Press, Denver Post and Lincoln Journal Star before joining Watchdog.