Editorial Roundup: Nebraska

Omaha World-Herald. May 15, 2022.

Editorial: Nebraska’s primary turnout isn’t good enough

The 2022 Nebraska primary is over. Congratulations to the winners who will advance to the general election in November, and respect to those who were defeated after engaging in this important democratic process.

Thanks to the poll workers and other election officials who ensured that votes were properly counted.

And thanks to the voters, whether you cast your ballots early from home or in a voting booth on Election Day. This year, turnout was on the higher side as primaries go. Statewide, 33% voted. The record is 35% for a gubernatorial primary, 40% overall.

But let’s not congratulate ourselves too much about our somewhat better-than-average turnout. For every voter who showed up, two others skipped the whole affair.

It’s hard to assert that “we the people” are in charge when only a minority of us are choosing our leaders and deciding on important issues.

True, a primary usually isn’t the final chance voters have to weigh in. But sometimes it is.

In Omaha, primary voters decided Tuesday to spend $260 million on major street projects, buildings, parks and more — and to borrow the money to do that.

We’re glad that Omaha’s streets will have the money to be upgraded and maintained, and Omaha’s bond package is designed to avoid raising property taxes more than previously authorized. But the fact is that without the newly-approved bonds, taxes might have declined. Which means that a minority of Omahans on Tuesday committed everyone else in the city to higher levels of property taxes.

It’s tempting to say to the non-voters: “You snooze, you lose.”

Those who cared enough made the choice. But that’s hardly the way to ensure that Omaha’s residents, collectively, will be behind the policies that are chosen.

Low turnout isn’t the only way that our primaries may not reflect the will of the broader electorate.

For example, Republican candidate Walt Peffer won a three-way GOP primary for Douglas County Assessor/Register of Deeds. Since no Democratic candidate ran for the office, Peffer is set to be unopposed in November.

But the 19,234 votes Peffer received in the primary hardly represent the county’s voters. He got less than 42% of the votes cast in his primary race. Since Democrats and nonpartisan voters weren’t allowed to vote in the Republican primary, Peffer had only 16 percent of all ballots cast in the election.

And Peffer’s vote total was only 5% of all Douglas County registered voters.

Yet that partisan 5% group effectively chose the person in charge of setting fair and accurate property valuations for every one of the county’s property owners.

That’s not the kind of participation in representative democracy that we should want.

To do better, more candidates need to step up and run. Many more voters need to show up at the polls. And along with those things, perhaps we need to consider changes that would create better incentives to vote and ensure representative results.

Nonpartisan voters are taxpayers who contribute just as much as Republicans and Democrats to the cost of running elections, but any independent voter who shows up at the polls in a primary is likely to be disappointed by the paltry number of races they can vote in. They shouldn’t be prevented from voting for offices that are classified as partisan, from the governor to county sheriff. They should be able to give their preference on which candidates will advance to the general election ballot, especially if there might not be much choice at that point.

Right now, it’s up to the parties to decide whether to open up their primaries to nonpartisan voters. Democrats, Libertarians and the Legal Marijuana NOW party did this year. Republicans did not, which may be the reason why thousands of voters changed their registrations to Republican in the months before the primary, the only way that they could vote in the state’s hottest primary contest, the GOP race for governor.

The nearly 22% of Nebraska voters who didn’t want to sign up for a party were left on the sidelines as just over one-third of Republican voters picked Jim Pillen to face Democrat Carol Blood in November.

And that GOP primary may well have chosen the state’s governor for the next four years. Given that Republican-leaning Nebraska hasn’t elected a Democrat for governor since Ben Nelson in 1994, Pillen is clearly the favorite.

We’re not sure of the right solution to make primaries more meaningful for independent voters and more representative overall. Some advocate more open primaries or entirely nonpartisan primaries or shifting to ranked choice elections. There are advantages and disadvantages to any change.

But we know this. Primaries like the one we just completed are drawing too few voters, partly because they aren’t set up to encourage participation of all Nebraskans.

And when these low-turnout elections effectively make final decisions in races and ballot issues, the outcome is undemocratic.

Nebraska should look for ways to do better.

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North Platte Telegraph. May 14, 2022.

Editorial: Thank you, but we can govern ourselves here in Nebraska

Two time-honored Nebraska truisms held up once more in Tuesday’s primary election, making them ripe for repetition to the so-called professional handlers and out-of-state observers.

» Never, ever, put Nebraskans in a box based on how the rest of the country thinks.

» Skip the splashy out-of-state or out-of-town endorsements. You’re usually wasting your time and even your money.

Nebraskans will make their own decisions, thank you very much. And they prefer the candidates who knock on doors and wear out their shoes.

Unless our national journalistic peers spend more time here than a quick plane stop in “flyover country,” they’ll never get that.

We were amused as their breathless stories sprouted like weeds during the primary’s last week, expecting Nebraskans’ votes on Nebraskans’ own races to fit their scripts on national 2022 midterm trends.

Obviously the former president’s involvement in our race for governor had much to do with that.

We were struck, though, by a prerecorded comment from one of Donald Trump’s best-known White House aides at Charles Herbster’s May 1 rally in Greenwood.

As tweeted at the time by Nebraska Examiner reporter Aaron Sanderford, Kellyanne Conway declared: “This election is about Nebraska.”

Yup. So just what were all you non-Nebraskans doing here?

We’ll leave it there, except to reiterate that national figures’ endorsements, ads and even campaign appearances go only so far in Nebraska when Nebraskans are deciding which Nebraskans will govern Nebraska.

When people start talking about “blue states” and “red states,” we first like to remind people where those colors came from.

They came from national TV networks’ election-night graphics — and we remember a time when they assigned Republicans the blue color and Democrats the red.

As for Nebraska being a “red state,” well, heck, of course we are: Have you out-of-staters happened to look across our 500-mile length on a fall football Saturday?

(Yes, we know there’s more to the label than that, but surely Husker fans from border to border have earned the right to use that sarcastic comeback. Steal it if you like.)

Seriously speaking, Nebraskans know best how they think and see the world. We speak our minds and cast our votes. And conservative we generally are. No question.

But we’re also the only 100% public-power state. We alone have America’s only one-house legislature and keep the parties and lobbyists outside of it looking in (officially, anyway).

Those choices don’t fit the partisan boxes.

We’ve made, retained and defended them for going on 85 years, through “officially” red and blue State Capitol administrations alike.

We fully expect Nebraskans will keep doing so, as long as they continue to believe — for good reason, in our view — that they’re the best choices for Nebraska.

So, our fellow Americans, don’t assume you know what Nebraskans will do based on national partisan checklists. We’re bound to surprise you.

Having said that, we’d add that Tuesday’s results should warn the residents of Nebraska’s own east coast — those living along the Missouri River — against falling for the same assumption about greater Nebraska.

We’ve seen political figures and groups in or near Omaha or Lincoln trying to shape our own decisions about our own local representatives by injecting funds, flooding mailboxes and using whatever clout they have to tilt outcomes.

Sometimes it works. Or seems to.

But it’s our observation that state and local candidates win in Nebraska only to the extent they engage deeply in what newly chosen GOP gubernatorial nominee Jim Pillen called “the ground game.”

If any of our region’s primary winners happen to coincide with metro-area endorsements and investments, we’d lay odds they didn’t rely on them in their own campaigns.

Fortunately for Tuesday’s winners and runners-up, most have a second chance on Nov. 8. They’ve got six months to reset, make adjustments and knock on more doors as they pursue the big prize.

We have one more thought for them, though: Take your full halftime break, so to speak.

Nebraskans have vacations to take and crops to tend this summer. We know you’ll campaign, but really, too much constant campaigning can annoy a lot of voters as well.

Congratulations to those who advanced from Tuesday’s primaries. And to folks in the other 49 states who think they have us all figured out, a closing word: Rubbish.

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Lincoln Journal-Star. May 13, 2022.;

Editorial: Facial recognition software use raises concerns

Since September, Lincoln police have used facial recognition software from the state Department of Motor Vehicles to help identify 23 possible suspects in crimes as varied as shoplifting, burglary and illegal gun purchases.

Last month, the Lincoln City Council approved a memorandum of understanding with the Nebraska DMV formalizing the Lincoln Police Department’s use of the controversial technology, which is strongly opposed by civil liberties advocates and seen to be easily abused to identify criminal suspects.

“To make it perfectly clear to everyone, this is not the way in which we go and arrest anyone,” Lincoln Police Chief Teresa Ewins told the council, trying to assure them that a software match would not be the sole evidence used for an arrest. “You need a lot more than a hit on facial recognition. It’s a tool.”

That tool, whether used alone or with other evidence, is unquestionably invasive to citizens’ privacy, literally turning anyone with a driver’s license whose face matches the software criteria into a criminal suspect.

Just as troubling, facial recognition software produces more misidentification of brown and black faces, a group that is already over-targeted by law enforcement.

Those issues have caused some cities, including San Francisco, where Ewins was a police commander before coming to Lincoln last year, to ban law enforcement use of facial recognition software.

Ewins acknowledged those concerns – “It’s all about checks and balances,” she told the council. “We are and will always be aware the software is not a panacea of identifying someone.”

Or, in other words, she is saying “trust us.”

That trust, however, must be earned.

And it can only be earned through transparency from a department that has been less than forthcoming on some key matters of public interest, including ongoing lawsuits by former female officers alleging a toxic workplace culture against women.

Specifically, the use of facial recognition software should be regularly publicly reported, with a detailed listing of arrests that utilized the software and the corroborating evidence that served as the basis for the arrest.

That reporting also should break out the number of people of color who are arrested through the use of the software – and, if possible, an accounting of the number of misidentified possible suspects that also looks at the number of people of color.

Only through that transparency can the use or abuse of the facial recognition software be properly examined and judged not only by the department, which is biased towards its use, but by the public, civil liberties advocates and the council, who might choose to end the agreement and ban the use of the software if it is being abused.

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