Polling cuts lead lawmakers to look at different forms of voting

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March 8, 2012 - 6:00pm

Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps recently announced he was cutting the amount of polling sites in Douglas County by half before this May's primary. Phipps has cited economic reasons, as well as early voting, as being the key reasons for making the decision. Now, some state lawmakers are looking to overcome the challenges associated with sites closing and examine other voting techniques.

Phipps said it wasn't a decision he made lightly.

"You know, we thought this was an opportunity to take a look at just how many people really voted at polling places, what that trend was like, and if there was anything we could do to save money," he said. "Frankly, personnel costs are one of our biggest expenditures and one of the biggest places we can save money."


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Harms pointed to other states, like Washington and Oregon, that have now turned to using voting-by-mail on a statewide basis.


Phipps said those cuts could also amount to nearly $115,000 in savings for taxpayers during elections. But not everyone is pleased with the potential cuts - just ask Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale.

"We all have a lot at stake to ensure that our elections are smooth and fair, and accessible to our citizens," Gale said, adding that the announcement immediately caught his attention. He said he was already uncomfortable with cuts to precincts in other counties, including Sarpy and Lancaster.

"There is quite a difference between Lancaster County, which reduced its precincts by 15 percent. Sarpy was 25 percent, and then Douglas was about 50 percent," Gale said. "It can indeed impact people because of the confusion and inconvenience. They may indeed have to drive further, if they drive. If they use public transportation, they may have to travel further. We just don't know if this has really been thought out in terms of the impact on the public as much as maybe it should have been.

"I can understand it's been thought out in terms of cost savings."

Gale said in 2004, a shortage of polling sites and improperly divided precincts, paired with higher voter turnout, caused long lines and voter frustrations.

"That was very disquieting, very disturbing to all of us in the elections, because we want our citizens to have fairly immediate access and availability to vote," Gale recalled. "People have busy lives, they don't have time to be standing around for two hours waiting to get their ballot in. In fact, it could discourage them and result in that they leave their line, go on about their life and never return."

Phipps said he wished the cuts weren't necessary, but he was quick to point to the growing popularity of early voting.

"Back in the year 2000, they changed the law so that you didn't have to have an excuse to vote early anymore," he said. "You used to have to say that you're going to be out of the town or you'll be in the hospital - there was some excuse you had to have in order to vote early. ... About one in every three people vote early nowadays, and that number continues to grow, making our reliance on polling places less and less."

Some Nebraska lawmakers have taken notice of the changing trends in voting. Earlier this year, State Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff proposed a law that would allow Nebraska counties with populations under 10,000 to vote by mail-in elections, provided voters approved. Rural parts of the state have been seeing an opposite problem as areas face declining populations. But Harms said they've still struggled with making voting convenient more poll sites are closed across the state. He said his bill would have battled polling cuts by providing convenience and encouraging voting.


Photo courtesy of Nebraska Legislature

State Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff proposed a law that would allow Nebraska counties with populations under 10,000 to vote by mail-in elections, provided voters approved.


"I've been concerned for a long time," he said. "There's been a steady decline since 1960 in regard to the number of people voting, and Nebraska is no better than that. In 2010, only 43 percent of the registered voters voted in Nebraska.

"There is a cost savings, it's proven to work and it's convenient," he continued. "When they've surveyed them nationally, they've discovered there's an 80 percent approval rate. People love it. It's just more convenient and it's easier for them to do it."

Harms pointed to other states, like Washington and Oregon, that have now turned to using voting-by-mail on a statewide basis. Harm's bill for rural counties in Nebraska however, ultimately failed in committee.

"I have every intent of bringing this bill back," he stressed. "I think it's a good bill, and I think it's important to make it easier for people to vote. They're going to be cutting down on the places you go, which means that in many cases, people may have to travel further. I think if you really want to (you) have the opportunity here to let people really vote and be a part of this great process and this great nation, great state. This is the way to do that."

For now, Harms won't find officials like the secretary of state in his corner. Gale said while he found potential in the bill, he worried too many testified in support of it ultimately to see Nebraska become an all "vote-by-mail" state. That's an idea, Gale said, that he opposed.

"I didn't want to see this as a first step toward an all vote-by-mail election in Nebraska," said Gale. "We think we have an excellent, high-tech, very uniform, consistent voting system across the state of Nebraska now. It works well for us. The equipment has considerable more years of life and there just wasn't any urgency to make any kind of a change in that direction."

As for Douglas County, Election Commissioner Dave Phipps said locations set to close haven't been decided yet, but that voters would receive notices in the mail of where their new polling site will be.

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