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Spring city elections cost Omaha money, votes; leaders call for change

Supporters of separate elections say it spotlights local issues
Posted at 5:00 PM, Apr 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-08 19:29:52-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Omaha and Lincoln voters headed back to the polls Tuesday, five months after a record number of Nebraskans voted in 2020’s pandemic-fueled presidential election.

City primary voters in Omaha weighed five candidates for mayor, advancing two of them to the general election, and Lincoln and Omaha picked candidates for city council.

Elsewhere in Nebraska, April 6 was just a Tuesday – not Election Day. And next month, when Omaha and Lincoln vote again, other cities will still be enjoying a break from politics.

“Every other community in the state doesn’t do that,” said Secretary of State Bob Evnen, the state’s chief election officer. “Every other community in the state has their local elections in sync with our statewide elections.”

Those who support the decision by Nebraska’s two largest cities to go it alone with city elections say it reduces the impact of national and party politics.

But doing so comes at a cost. For each city election, the Douglas and Lancaster County Election Commissions charge Omaha and Lincoln what it costs to hold a special election.

This year, Douglas County expects to charge Omaha between $800,000 and $1 million, because of coronavirus-influenced increases in early voting and the costs associated with it.

Lancaster County expects to charge between $200,000 and $350,000, Lancaster County Election Commissioner Dave Shively said.

That money covers the costs of everything needed to conduct an election, from envelopes and stamps to poll workers and sites, Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse said.

Potential savings would come from sharing the costs of those elections with other political subdivisions holding elections, from school boards to public power districts, he said.

The theory behind holding standalone city elections was that increased attention might increase turnout for local elections, Evnen said. That hasn’t happened.

In reality, Omaha and Lincoln’s off-year city elections draw less than a third of the electorate, far fewer voters than regular presidential or gubernatorial elections.

Douglas County averaged 70% turnout in the '08, ’12, and ’16 presidential elections. An average of only 32% voted in the city general elections that followed in May.

voter turnout comparison

“I think that the time has come to rethink that,” said Evnen, a Republican. “I think that they ought to join the rest of the state and have their elections at the same time as statewide elections.”

The history of Omaha holding elections in odd-numbered years, after major elections, might well be an accident of fate.

3 News Now Investigators dug through a basement full of city records dating back to the late 1800s with City Clerk Elizabeth Butler.

Those documents show the city’s switch to a strong-mayor style of governance in the mid-1950s happened when an election was already planned for Spring of 1957.

Before the change, when the city was run in the commission style of city governance, it held elections every three years, not four. The new approach switched to elections every four.

Had city leaders waited for one more election cycle, Omaha would have been electing mayors in the same years as Nebraska governors – albeit in the spring.

There are two ways to change the timing of city elections in Omaha and Lincoln: by changing state law, which governs elections, or by changing city charter.

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha agrees that Omaha and Lincoln should stop holding city elections months after the end of grueling campaigns for president and governor.

But he’d like Omaha and Lincoln to move local elections to presidential election years, instead of gubernatorial, pointing to last fall’s record 76% turnout.

Wayne, a Democrat, said he plans to propose a bill next year to consolidate city elections. Doing so would give more people a say in the way their cities are governed, he said.

“We need to change the law to make sure that all elections are done on the same day,” Wayne said. “I think it’s important that we have consistency.”

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said she would prefer the state let Omaha change its approach to city elections, by amending the city’s charter, like a local constitution.

city charter

Stothert, a Republican, tried amending the charter to move Omaha’s city elections to even-numbered years in 2013. To her, the change saved dollars and made sense.

“I just thought that would be a more efficient way to do it,” she told 3 News Now Investigators. “Increase voter turnout. It would save the city money.”

A bipartisan slate of charter delegates backed her 2013 proposal, recommending that the city council send the amendment to a vote of the people. The council said no.

Council members who opposed the move at the time said they wanted Omaha’s city elections to stand apart, to stand out. They also preferred the compressed schedule of city elections.

Stothert says she aims to try again if she wins her re-election race next month. She is expected to face Democrat RJ Neary.

The next chance is 2023. The Omaha city charter is reviewed at least once a decade by a commission that takes and makes recommendations on changes.

Omaha City Council member, Chris Jerram, who opposed Stothert’s change in 2013, said the next city council should do the same. He represents east-central Omaha and part of downtown.

He said off-year city elections allow “a uniquely dedicated focus only on the city and the city’s issues.” Their timing helps avoid hyperpartisanship and never-ending campaigns, he said.

Omaha elections typically take place during a six-month window because of the presidential elections that precede them, instead of stretching into two years like other elections, Jerram said.

He also says moving city elections into larger elections risks nationalizing city politics; injecting partisanship into local decisions that should be focused on streets, parks and libraries.

He worries city primaries would devolve into contests about who could offer the most "red meat" to rabid partisans.

“Why would we ever want to lose that?” he asked. “To me, it makes no sense.”

Former Omaha mayoral candidate, Dawaune Lamont Hayes, who runs NOISE, a news organization that serves North Omaha, has a unique perspective on Omaha city elections.

He just missed making the mayoral primary ballot this spring, falling short of the city’s 1,000-voter signature requirement, a quirk that only Lincoln shares for city elections.

He and others involved in local elections said they would like to address the signature requirements, too. But Hayes says he wants the city to address election timing first.

Hayes said that city government is supposed to be the level of government closest to the people, but separate city elections mean a small slice of the city decides who leads it and its direction.

Election experts say the biggest drop-off in turnout between larger elections and off-year city elections occurs in older, more diverse parts of Omaha. That’s a problem, Hayes said.

“I think we should change it so that it is more accessible, and people are more aware,” he said.

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