By Joe Jordan | Nebraska Watchdog
Election 2012 is over but the battle for fair elections in Omaha is just warming up, and it’s likely to go all the way to the governor’s office.
Nebraska Watchdog has learned that if one lawmaker gets his way, Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps — who was hand-picked by Gov. Dave Heineman — will be in jeopardy of losing his job.
State Sen. Steve Lathrop, an Omaha Democrat, is looking to strip the Republican governor’s power to appoint the county’s top election official.
The move follows months of controversy and charges that Phipps, who at one point closed nearly half the county’s polling places, was out to keep inner city voters — mostly Democrats — from casting ballots.
After an avalanche of criticism, Phipps apologized and reopened some of the voting sites. He insisted he was only trying to save money.
Lathrop, to say the least, is skeptical.
“I don’t want to accuse anyone of being incompetent or political, but I don’t know what other explanations there are,” Lathrop said.
Lathrop is still working out the details, but it appears likely he will push a bill that would either turn over the appointment power to the Douglas County Board or put the elected county clerk in charge of local voting.
Elected clerks in 86 Nebraska counties already handle election duties. Phipps has not been available for comment, but both he and the governor have fought to keep things as is.
Earlier this year, a Nebraska Watchdog investigation found letters from both Phipps and Heineman urging lawmakers to leave well-enough alone.
“I believe that this important appointment authority should remain with the governor … to maintain a degree of independence from county boards,” Heineman wrote.
Phipps, who was appointed by Heineman seven years ago, agreed.
“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.”
Their comments came during calmer times and talks on a little publicized bill (LB934) that would have ended the governor’s ability to appoint the election commissioner in Douglas County and in the state’s two other largest counties — Lancaster and Sarpy.
Both letters were written Feb. 1, the day of the public hearing on the bill.
“Transferring appointment authority to county boards creates the opportunity for an intermingling of personal interests and public duties,” the governor said. “I am concerned about maintaining honest elections in Nebraska.”
At that public hearing, Deputy Secretary of State Neil Erickson testified that the governor has been appointing the election commissioner in Douglas County since 1913, when vote fraud was rampant.
“You had situations where ballot boxes were ending up in the river,” Erickson said.
But Erickson also told the Government Committee that in the 86 other counties where the elected county clerk is also the election commissioner, there are no strings attached.
The county boards “don’t really have the authority to order the county clerks to do much of anything,” Erickson said.
Contact Joe Jordan at [email protected]
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— Edited by Kelly Carson, [email protected]