David Shively

Lancaster County Election Commissioner David Shively holds a sample ballot Thursday as he testifies before the Legislature's Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star

Lincoln and Omaha city officials expressed opposition Thursday to any potential election law changes that would move their city elections to presidential or gubernatorial election years.

Sen. John Murante of Gretna pointed to the lower voter turnout and greater costs incurred by the two cities in holding their elections separate from statewide elections as a factor to be considered in studying any possible change.

But spokesmen for the cities of Lincoln and Omaha cited the steady decline in voter participation as voters move down the ballot from presidential or statewide races that top what already can be a long list of candidates to consider.

"Ballot drop-off is a very real phenomenon," Rick Hoppe, chief of staff to Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler, told the Legislature's Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee during a public hearing.

Moving those local races to the longer ballot would also "make elections far more expensive" for city candidates, Hoppe said, raising a concern that some potential candidates "might be priced out of the market."

Ben Gray, president of the Omaha City Council, said the city would rather pay the greater costs of its off-year local elections than "lose voters down ballot."

The issue is fundamentally a matter of local control, he said. 

During an ensuing discussion, Murante suggested to Hoppe that Lincoln's system of electing three of its seven City Council members with a citywide vote tends to be "a barrier to people of color" who are more likely to be elected in district elections.

Four members of the Lincoln City Council are elected by district. The only African-American member of the Lincoln City Council, Bennie Shobe, was elected on the most-recent citywide ballot.

All seven members of the Omaha City Council are elected by district. 

Preston Love Jr., of Omaha, founder and CEO of Black Votes Matter, said he would support including Omaha city elections on the gubernatorial election year ballot because more voters participate in those elections.

On a separate issue, there was general agreement the state is going to need to invest millions of dollars in modernizing its election technology or face a breakdown in its elections soon.

"We are no more than five years away from widespread failure of technology," said Murante, who is chairman of the committee.

In addition, he said, "we need to assure that our election equipment is secure," especially when a growing number of voters have lost confidence in the integrity of U.S. elections.

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha estimated the cost of modernizing the state's election technology at $25 million to $50 million.

The election technology discussion was prompted by consideration of a legislative study of potential voter fraud.

Joanna Lindberg, speaking for the League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha, said a study by her organization found there might be isolated instances in the state, but "voter fraud is not a problem in Nebraska."

Two people have been prosecuted in Nebraska for voter fraud this year. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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