Extending voting rights to people who live outside Omaha's city limits could be on the agenda for the Nebraska Legislature — with the backing of the Omaha City Council.
The council voted 4-3 Tuesday to add the proposal to a list of bills the city will lobby for during the Legislature's next session. The plan, introduced by Councilman Franklin Thompson, would allow people who live in a 3-mile area around Omaha in Douglas County to vote in city elections.
The idea has been brought up in the past but so far has failed to gain much traction.
But Thompson said he's heard from plenty of people who are frustrated by city decisions on which they have no input. He pointed to a long discussion in Tuesday's council meeting over plans for a west Omaha apartment complex, in which one opponent lamented that she and her neighbors could not vote for the council members deciding on the project.
Thompson said he believes the issue should be settled by the Legislature, not by the council.
“I think it is the time now to have all the people pitch in on the pros and the cons,” he said. “I don't think cutting it off at this point is the way to go.”
Thompson won support from council members Garry Gernandt, Aimee Melton and Rich Pahls.
Melton said she frequently gets calls from people who live in her area but are residents of a sanitary and improvement district, rather than the city.
“We are representing business owners and a number of people we affect on a daily basis with our decisions who don't have an ability to vote for us or vote for the mayor,” she said. Thompson's plan “is getting the discussion going.”
Others, however, said giving voting rights to people who don't pay taxes or contribute to the upkeep of the streets they use isn't in the best interest of the city.
Council members Ben Gray and Chris Jerram both said the change could dilute the impact of minority voters.
Jerram said people who live in SIDs have pushed hard to avoid having to pay city taxes and fees.
“There's a conscious vote with your feet and your pocketbook to live and acquire property outside of the city limits in sanitary improvement districts,” he said.
The city's legal department has also expressed caution about the plan.
In a Sept. 18 memo, Deputy City Attorney Alan Thelen notes that allowing nonresident voters to vote on changes to the city's charter could violate the state's constitution. He added that the city could be vulnerable to challenges under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires jurisdictions to map out districts based on relatively equal populations.