Suttle Supporters Bus Homeless To Vote

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Channel 6 News witnessed three different busloads at the election commissioner's office at different times of the day. Some of the people being transported were homeless people from the Siena/Francis House.

Mike Saklar, who runs the house, told reporter Jodi Baker he was only able to piece together what was happening when Baker contacted him by phone to check on the involvement of the Siena/Francis House.

Saklar made it clear his homeless shelter is a nonprofit organization and does not get involved in politics. He was surprised and concerned about what had happened.

“I had no pre-knowledge of this and what I did find out was that a staff member came and told me, did you know a school bus just dropped off a number of homeless guests at our day services center. And that was the first I'd heard of this."

He added, "As a non-profit, 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."

Saklar said, "I'm concerned a little bit as I think about the image of grabbing homeless people to do this."

A spokesperson for Forward Omaha, a group trying to keep Mayor Jim Suttle in office, says it was behind the busing effort. Noelle Obermeyer indicated the effort was not just targeting the homeless, but north Omaha in general.

Obermeyer said a lot of people in north Omaha do not have vehicles and Forward Omaha is helping them to vote early. In this case, Forward Omaha bused 60-people from the shelter to the election office -- an 8-mile trip. The Suttle supporter stressed that Forward Omaha was not telling the homeless or anyone else how to vote.

Another issue that is still murky is the suggestion that some of the people are being paid cash. Obermeyer explained that Forward Omaha is paying some of the people $5 cash, but said the money was payment for those who will work as "election canvassers," people who help to get out the vote. They took part in a half-hour training class in order to qualify. If they are hired for future work, they would be paid $10/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.

Another Forward Omaha supporter said that some of the people were told they would get help finding a job.

"The situation is that we will be hiring some of these people to work," said Bobby Leonard. "And that's predicated on the amount of money we have and the plan. But we will be canvassing with some of these people. That's one of the reasons they wanted to come over is because they are looking for opportunities to work."

One such Siena-Francis House resident, Michael Sergeon, said, "They told me that I might be able to get a job, passing out fliers."

He said he would not have been able to vote if not for the free bus ride. "I’m homeless, you think I can walk from here to there," he said outside the Douglas County Election Commission at 115th & Davenport.

"You can't give financial incentives or any other types of incentives to entice someone to vote or register to vote," says Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps. "You can't offer alcohol, food or money but giving someone a ride to the polls is perfectly fine."

The election commissioner says it's fine to pay someone for volunteer work as in any campaign.

Forward Omaha says no one was paid to vote or told how to vote.
"The truth of the matter is we have registered voters in homeless shelters," says Noelle Obermeyer with Forward Omaha. "They have a right to vote and they need a ride and we're here to give them a ride. We're not telling them to vote one way or another. We're there to just give a ride."

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.

If you don't have a home, state law allows one to use the shelter or the election office as your registered address.