LINCOLN — Election commissioners from Nebraska's second- and third-largest counties urged state lawmakers Thursday to reject a proposed remedy to an election controversy that flared last year in Douglas County.
The Legislature's Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee heard testimony on a bill that would cap precinct sizes at 1,000 voters, down from its present maximum number of 1,750. Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, the bill's sponsor, said her goal is to reduce precinct size and the distance that citizens must travel to vote in urban districts.
While confusion over closed polling places prompted allegations of voter suppression in Douglas County, similar issues did not surface in Sarpy and Lancaster Counties, officials said at Thursday's hearing.
“This is a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived problem in Douglas County,” said Sarpy County Election Commissioner Wayne Bena. “There wasn't an outcry in Sarpy County.”
Reducing polling places allowed Sarpy County to save between $25,000 and $30,000, Bena said. And none of the county's precincts had more than 1,340 voters.
Lancaster County Election Commissioner David Shively also testified against the bill, saying that the county experienced no significant problems and that precinct sizes generally ran between 400 and 600 voters.
Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps did not attend the hearing or submit written comments.
Nebraska counties had to change voting precincts after the 2010 Census led to new maps for congressional and state legislative districts. Election commissioners also were allowed to increase precinct size under a law passed last year by the Legislature.
Lawmakers raised the cap on precinct size last year in response to the growing trend in early voting, which has reduced pressure on polling places. Closing some unneeded polling places allows the counties to cut election expenses.
Douglas County closed nearly half its polling places before the primary election. After an outcry, Phipps sought public input, and he reopened some of the polling places before the general election.
As she canvassed neighborhoods in her district last year, Howard said confusion over polling places was mentioned more than any other topic.
“It surprised me how damaged the public's trust in the process had become,” she said.
In addition to reducing precinct size, Legislative Bill 235 would require the creation of citizen committees to advise election commissioners in the state's three largest counties. It also would mandate public notices and hearings before polling locations were moved or closed.
Several speakers said they support the bill because of those provisions, which they argued would increase transparency and public input.
Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, firstname.lastname@example.org
More Legislature coverage, resources
• Map: Find your senator