Despite plans by top state officials to reopen some of the 160 polling places that were closed by Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps, the controversy is far from over.
Along with a possible federal investigation state officials—on the heels of an exclusive report by Nebraska Watchdog—are taking a closer look at the state law which dictates how the election commissioner is named.
For years the election chiefs in Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy counties have been appointed by the governor; a system ripe for change according to least two Nebraska lawmakers, Russ Karpisek of Wilber and Heath Mello of Omaha.
Earlier this year Karpisek came up short with a bill that would have stripped the governor’s appointment power, giving the county boards in the state’s three most populous counties the authority to name the election commissioner.
Karpisek tells Nebraska Watchdog that he intends to push the bill again next year. While Karpisek says his issue is local control not the mess in Douglas County, Mello says the ballot box fight in Omaha “reenforces the need to examine election officials’ authority to redraw precinct lines, as well as the method by which election commissioners are appointed in Douglas County.”
As Nebraska Watchdog reported exclusively earlier this month both Governor Dave Heineman and Phipps objected to Karpisek’s bill, arguing that the governor should retain the power to appoint the election commissioners in Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy.
In a February 1st letter obtained by Nebraska Watchdog, Heineman told State Sen. Bill Avery who heads up the Legislature’s Government Committee, “I believe that this important appointment authority should remain with the governor…to maintain a degree of independence from county boards…”
Phipps’ objections—also detailed in a letter to Avery dated February 1, the same day as the committee’s public hearing on Karpisek’s bill—were similar to Heineman’s.
“The independence of Election Commissioners from the influence of others is important,” said Phipps. ”If a County Board is unhappy with an Election Commissioner, there is the power to reduce, or threaten to reduce, the Election Commissioner’s budget if they do not bend to the will of the Board.”
Monday during a conference call with reporters Heineman told Nebraska Watchdog that despite Phipps’ problems he’ll remain in charge.
Nebraska Watchdog: Is (Phipps’) job safe, are you considering firing him?
Governor Heineman: No I’m not. And let me explain. He’s admitted that he made a mistake. He’s apologized for that. He’s trying to move forward…The focus ought to be on voter turnout. It’s too low in Douglas County…Let’s have a record voter turnout here in the primary and then again in the general election, it’s a presidential year. That’s where my focus is.
In four counties Buffalo, Cass, Hall and Platte the county boards appoint the election commissioner. In the state’s 86 other counties the county clerk, who is elected by the voters, also acts as the election commissioner.
Reported by Joe Jordan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: to subscribe to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog at no cost, click here