The group Forward Omaha has been providing transportation of homeless people, among others, by busloads to the Douglas County Election Commission at 115th and Davenport.
Channel 6 News spotted three such buses and learned many of the homeless were not registered to vote, but listed either the Election Commissioner's Office or the Siena/Francis House as their Omaha address.
A statement released Thursday afternoon by Mayor Jim Suttle's office states "Mayor Jim Suttle learned that Forward Omaha – one of the groups opposing the recall of Mayor Suttle – made an error in judgment relating to their efforts to oppose the January 25th Recall Election."
It goes on to state: "The decision to bus potential voters to the election commissioner’s office was done as part of Forward Omaha’s efforts to assist individuals without transportation in their attempt to vote. The other facet of Forward Omaha’s actions was the recruitment and training of Election Day get out the vote (“GOTV”) workers. Hiring people to work on Election Day is a long-running and common aspect of modern political campaigns. Unfortunately, someone from Forward Omaha decided to combine the dual efforts to assist voters and recruit Election Day workers. This was a mistake."
The statement from the Mayor's office also pointed out Mayor Suttle has asked for Wednesday's actions to cease. "The decision to intermingle the transportation assistance and worker recruitment created an unacceptable conflict of interest. The financial incentives associated with Election Day employment should never be used to affect the vote of any citizen of Omaha. The Mayor does not support this or any other type of voter manipulation. Any effort to inappropriately acquire votes from the homeless is inconsistent with Mayor Suttle’s core values and will not be tolerated. For these reasons, Mayor Suttle has contacted Forward Omaha and demanded that efforts like yesterday not be repeated. He has made it clear to all involved that under no circumstance should voter transportation and worker recruitment be combined."
One early voter was angry to see the buses. "It’s just another Democratic way of taking over, that’s my opinion," said Robert Stuart. "Everybody’s got a right to vote, but why they’ve got to bus them all the way out there."
Another, Roseann Porter, said, "I didn't like the way they did it. It seems there has to be something illegal about it."
Mayor Suttle defended Forward Omaha’s actions, saying it was a positive move to get out the vote. "We provided an opportunity, obviously it was done through Forward Omaha, we will continue that and we will continue as we have done and how others have done in election after election after election."
Transportation is something both Democrat and Republican parties typically provide during elections for those who need it. "All we was trying to do is provide transportation for people that wanted to vote to come out and do so," said Forward Omaha supporter Bobby Leonard.
Nebraska law states: "... If a registered voter has no residence address, his or her residence address shall be deemed to be the office of the election commissioner or county clerk of the county of such voter's residence for purposes of the Election Act."
The Secretary of State's office clarifies proof of residency is not required of anyone to register to vote. It is only required by first-time voters who register by mail. However, if the state can confirm residency through other sources, like DMV records and the like, such proof would not be needed.
Records of residential status are only used to receive a ballot, not to register. And those who register to vote in person are never required to show such proof.
Douglas County Election Commissioner, Dave Phipps, explained why the law is written that way. "We don't want to have barriers, and that's the way Nebraska law is set up, it's set up in favor of the people."
He said his office does not investigate whether or not a person who registers is being truthful about their address, saying that's not their role. "If somebody suspects that somebody has fraudulently filled out a voter registration, there are challenge forms that somebody can fill out and those sorts of investigations will go to the proper law enforcement."
Mike Saklar, who runs the Siena-Francis House, said he was not aware of Forward Omaha's free bus service prior to their pickup and drop-off back at his 17th & Nicholas shelter.
"As a nonprofit, I would never take a stand one way or another concerning an election. Certainly, I encourage and welcome people's right to vote in any election, but we would never take one side or another."
Noelle Obermeyer, a spokesperson for Forward Omaha, stressed that the group is not telling the homeless or anyone else how to vote.
Another issue is that some of those shuttled to the Election Commission to cast an early ballot received $5 cash. Obermeyer explained that Forward Omaha is paying those who want to train to become "election canvassers," not for their vote.
Obermeyer said they were paid after taking part in a half-hour training class in order to qualify. If they are hired for future work, they would be paid $10 an hour.
Those who were bused in from the shelter were asked to sign a form stating that payment had nothing to do with their vote. They were given other forms to explain the training involved and possible offer of employment. See below for the information distributed by the North Omaha Voter Participation Project and Forward Omaha.
Obermeyer insisted nothing they are doing is illegal and she also noted that 13 people who signed the recall petition gave addresses that were homeless shelters.
Some are saying big time politics have come to the Heartland, others say the latest controversy is simply another facet in Omaha campaigns.
We're talking about Forward Omaha busing the homeless to vote then hiring some to help fight the recall.
Documents were given to the homeless Wednesday during Forward Omaha's during Wednesday's session with the homeless. Within those documents was a sample ballot which asked if the mayor should be removed from office. The "No" circle was filled in, as an example, said Obermeyer. She insisted it was only part of training, and not intended to tell someone how to vote.
Critics, who question the motivation behind the payment and training documents say this is a new low for politics in Omaha. And the free transportation for the homeless, while within the letter of the law, was a move some deemed shady.
To that assertion, Mayor Jim Suttle replied, "Why is it shady? I had an older gentleman say to me this morning at a breakfast meeting, 'Why are they voting? They live in a homeless shelter.' They have the right to vote in this country they have a constitutional right to vote."
However, hours after that comment, Suttle released a statement calling combining the voter turnout and training "a mistake."
The mayor also criticized Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps for suppressing the vote in north and south Omaha by not providing a satellite office where they could vote early.
Phipps says the accusation doesn't hold water. "Seventy-five-percent of everyone who is going to vote, votes at their polling place," Phipps said. "While early voting is popular the neighborhood polling place is still the place where most people go to vote."
Incidentally, Phipps said early voters have turned out at a pace three times the usual amount for this point in a special election.
Legal or not, the head of the Recall Mayor Suttle Committee said the Forward Omaha has shown poor judgment, as has Suttle, and Jeremy Aspen believes it will show in the polls.
"The thing is just riddled with at least an opening for people to consider it as fraudulent," said Aspen. "They did this, it's unsavory everybody who hears this story is going to at least feel uncomfortable with the way things were done."
Channel 6 News has learned the Siena/Francis House is taking a beating because of this. People pulling donations or swearing they will never donate money or anything else to the shelter.
The Siena/Francis House played no role in Wednesday's events. It exists solely to provide shelter for homeless men and women.
At the Election Commission Thursday, Joe Pignotti lined up to vote. He said he was on the fence regarding the recall. "But after yesterday's stunt," he said, "I'm sorry, but I have to come out and vote. And I'll bet you it's gonna drive a lot of other people out here to vote."