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Exclusive: Governor’s Control Over Omaha’s Election Chief Gaining Scrutiny

By   /   April 24, 2012  /   11 Comments

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, joe@nebraskawatchdog.org

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  • Jeff Poley

    Joe:

    I’m not sure that I understand the Governor’s argument about the need to keep the election commissioner’s job free from the clutches and undue partisan influence of the county boards of Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster counties. It appears that keeping the Governor’s hands off the appointment of election commissioners of 90 of the 93 Nebraska counties is OK but not for the three largest counties. The biggest laugher is that the Governor thinks he is less partisan than the county boards, all of which have members from both political parties. Here’s a guy that threw members of his own party under the bus in a snit because they overrode his veto a couple of times.

    Jeff…

  • Troy

    Why not use some of the money Dave Nabbity and his little rich boys club reimbursed the commission for the failed recall? Oh yea, when the realized they didn’t win they said they never meant to imply that they would pay anything back.

  • Dani

    I would not want to see this position folded under the County Clerk. Our county clerk is much busier than in many other counties. However, if it were switched to appointment by the County Board, or elected, I would be fine with that. As long as the requirement that the Deputy Election Commissioner is from the opposite party as the Election Commissioner is retained. Or, I am fine with leaving it the way it is.

  • Dirt

    As I recently said to one of the Unicameral candidates from my legislative district (31) recently: why on earth is the primary arbiter of our elections a political appointee?

    Having the county clerk handle it or creating an elections commissioner inside the clerk’s office makes sense to me. We could make it an elected position, but then it becomes of question of if you want the politics of the governor to control it or the politics of the public at-large, though it’s seemed to have worked OK for our other county offices. I don’t know which method would be less partisan, though I’m inclined to think that making it an elected position would be less political than how it’s done now. It’s the same reason I voted against abolishing the State Treasurer’s office. I felt it should be an elected position so there is a check and balance with the voters versus something handled by an appointee.

  • DANNY

    The present policy is to ALWAYS appoint these election commissioners from the incumbent governors’ political party. It may even be the law to do so…i don’t know.

    Since Election Commissioners perform a purely electiive function,maybe they should be appointed by the Secretary of State,subject to confirmation by the Legislature,and stand for “retention” as Judges are now?

    If they fail to be retained after 4 years theSec of State/Legislature could fill the vacancy until the next election.

    Present state law currently prohibits an election commissioner from running for elective office for 2 (?) years immediately after the term to which he/she was appointed.

    There is no such thing as a “non-partisan’ Gov’s appointment…this way it might be at least somewhat “bipartisan” (If that is possible in good old Nebraska).

    Comments?

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  • http://TK4A outrageous

    Voters should decide who sits in the election commissioners chair. Any and all precinct changes should be discussed (far in advance of making actual changes) at multiple county board meetings.

    Sen. Nelson’s aide (Murante) is going to be a direct beneficiary of Sen. Nelson’s law allowing “redistricting” ….as Murante is now running for seat in a legislative district he and Sen. Nelson created. Wow…now how transparent was that?

    Remind me again, how much was Phipps gonna save Do. County Taxpayers? How much will it cost to defend a suit from the Feds? How much will it cost to print correct voter information? How much will it cost….Mr. Phipps? Do we have money to burn at Do. County? Guess so….

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  • BkDodge42

    Outrageous, remind me how much we are paying Lisa Wise and how this could all have been avoided if she only did her job? Where has she been through all of this?

  • What!?

    This system has worked well for decades; leave it alone.

    Phipps was trying to save TAXPAYERS some money and blew it. It wasn’t well thought out and he screwed up.

    Yes, he should have made his plans public before he did it. Yes, he should have asked for input. Should he be fired, I’ll leave that to the Governor.

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