The Company Phipps Keeps

Poll openings an improvement, but is the Election Commissioner too political?

How important could Douglas County be in next week’s election?

According to the New York Times “538 Blog,” there are 152 scenarios that could result in an electoral college tie in this year’s presidential election, effectively allowing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to choose the next President.

The chances are slim, but they increase as the race tightens, raising concerns that voter suppression in Douglas County could have national implications. In early June, The Reader reported on the most ambitious effort of four by Nebraska Republican politicians or appointees to suppress votes in traditionally Democratic Douglas County.

Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps had earlier announced he was consolidating half of the county’s precincts and closing one-third of its polling places. According to The Reader’s analysis of that data, Phipps’ changes hit poorer, less educated and more diverse areas of the city harder than richer, more educated, less diverse areas by a relative factor of three to five times.

Phipps back-pedaled, meeting with community groups to add back a little less than half of the total polling stations closed. Redoing the same analysis of this effort shows a big improvement, but as Adam Morfeld of Nebraskans for Civic Reform and other non-partisan voting rights groups have noted, it’s the confusion in the change that does more to discourage voting than the distance traveled to the polling location.

Two voter suppression efforts were stopped in the last Unicameral – one to take away the Congressional District’s electoral vote, making Nebraska a “winner take all” state in the electoral college, and another to require photo identification for voting. One measure passed in redistricting, swapping Bellevue to the First Congressional District centered around Lincoln with parts of western Sarpy County, almost doubling a Republican voter registration lead to 8,600 in the Second Congressional District encompassing all of Douglas County. The second measure to pass, LB 449, allowed a significant increase in voters per precinct, opening the door for the massive polling location closings.

The Republican-appointed Phipps cited budget savings in the closure and stated the decision had nothing to do with politics. He told The Reader then that he has not been involved in Republican politics during the seven years of his term. “It just looks bad,” he said.

He might not be publicly involved in Republican politics, but an analysis of his emails and schedules from January 2010 on suggest he’s privately very involved with Republicans, including Nebraska’s leading Republican party operative.

There are only three things that appear on Phipps calendar regularly without fail over the two years we reviewed. The first is the half hour staff meeting in the Election Commissioner’s office every Monday. The second is payday, on the second and fourth Fridays of the month. Finally, there is Movie Night every Thursday night, which on the later part of the schedule has an additional notation -- Castillo Manor.

Castillo Manor is the western Sarpy county home of Carlos Castillo, Phipp’s predecessor as Election Commissioner who left to be Governor Heinemann’s campaign manager before the governor appointed him in 2006 to oversee the state Department of Administrative Services. Last month the conservative Weekly Standard identified Castillo an “Omaha-based GOP operative” and the Lincoln Journal Star calls Castillo the “governor’s political right-hand man.” In 2008 he told LJS there was “no way” Obama would win an electoral vote in the Second Congressional District.

He may have been wrong in 2008, but LB 449, the bill allowing the polling place closings, will hurt Obama and Democratic chances in 2012. It was cause for celebration when it passed, according to an email from current Unicameral candidate John Murante, former aide to state Senator John Nelson, addressed to Castillo, Phipps and Sarpy County Election Commissioner Wayne Bena -- all Republican appointees.

“Well friends, it's that time of year again,” Murante wrote in the May 12, 2011 email. “The Legislature has passed and Governor Heineman has signed LB 449.

Another election bill passed over the objections of our beloved Secretary of State. Good (John Nelson) conquers evil (you know who).

“The work is complete and now it's time to celebrate with our own SINE party. We are thinking an after work / pre- Memorial Day weekend cocktail at the Green Onion on Thursday, May 26th. Let me know if that works for you or if we should re-schedule.

“Special thanks to the evil mastermind behind this operation (Dave Phipps) and Secretary of State-in waiting Wayne Bena for their work on LB 449.”

“What time are we planning for this wonderful celebration?,” replied Phipps to the group.

Murante uniquely benefitted from the Republican redistricting. In June 2011, Nebraskans for Civic Reform Executive Director Adam Morfeld posted a blog noting Murante’s unique advantage.

The week after the Unicameral approved new legislative districts, Murante launched his campaign for state senator in the newly created Legislative District 49 in western Sarpy County, “a legislative district he had a hand in creating,” wrote Morfeld. “It is widely accepted that legislators try to protect their districts, but it is particularly interesting when a legislative staffer who creates the maps essentially has the power to create his or her own district in which they can turn around and run for. Yet another reason for the creation of non-partisan redistricting committee.”

posted at 10:06 pm
on Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

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