Prank vote means license choice may not be final
LINCOLN, May 22, 2009 (Omaha World-Herald - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Nebraska's great license plate flap may not be over after all.
In a sudden turn Thursday night, a top state official said raw data showing voting patterns raise "some real questions and real concern." That raises serious questions whether the vote was compromised.
Beverly Neth, the state's motor vehicles director, looked at the information after it was requested by The World-Herald, which was seeking to determine whether a college humor Web site had succeeded in hijacking the vote. Neth said what she saw in an initial review of the data Thursday evening was "troubling." Left unsaid, but hanging over Neth's words, was the possibility of dumping the black-and-white plate that Gov. Dave Heineman announced as the winner Tuesday and reopening the plate design selection process. Neth said only that she needed to look through the data more before commenting further.
"My plan is to review these numbers and make an informed judgment call about what our plan should be," Neth said.
Neth declined to release the numbers to The World-Herald, pending her review. But other information released by Heineman's administration earlier Thursday also raised questions about whether the vote results were skewed when the Web site CollegeHumor.com encouraged its visitors to vote for the "boring" plate.
In the face of new information received Thursday, administration officials backed off previous statements that the votes linking off the CollegeHumor.com site were "spread evenly" among the four plate options, thus rendering the prank moot.
Instead, Jen Rae Hein, Heineman's spokeswoman, said Thursday that there were about 14,000 voters coming from the CollegeHumor.com site. As of Thursday night, the state had not found a way to tell how the CollegeHumor votes broke down.
However, it's clear that if most of those 14,000 people -- as encouraged by CollegeHumor.com -- voted for the black-and-white plate, there easily were enough votes to alter the outcome. That plate received 7,000 more votes than the second-place design, one featuring the state bird and state flower.
Kevin Corrigan, the CollegeHumor.com editor who instigated the prank, said Thursday that he has no doubt that's exactly what happened.
"I was already convinced it was our doing, and this furthers that," he said. "Our site did cause it to win." Thursday's events marked a dramatic turn in a surreal -- and, at times, comic -- license plate debate that has raged across the state for much of this month. It has all underscored how much those thin pieces of metal we bolt to our cars touch a nerve with Nebraskans.
Many Nebraskans were critical of all four proposed designs when they were unveiled May 4, and a leading advertising executive called them "embarrassing." Still, Heineman proceeded, noting that plates are a law-enforcement tool.
CollegeHumor.com got involved early in the two-week-long vote, encouraging a vote for the black-and-white plate so "Nebraskans get boring license plates." On Tuesday, Heineman announced the black-and-white plate as the winner. State officials said they were confident that CollegeHumor.com's effort did not skew the outcome.
Neth and Hein both said the votes coming from the humor Web site had been "spread evenly" among the four plate options.
But the story began to change Thursday as state officials were questioned in more detail by The World-Herald.
Hein said officials from Nebraska Interactive, the private company that manages the state's Web site, had provided the information she used for her earlier statements and company officials told her that, based on the consistent pattern of votes for the four plates coming from the comedy site, the hijacking effort had "no significant impact" on the vote.
But after the newspaper requested detailed information on those voting patterns, Neth looked at the data and expressed concerns.
Nebraska Interactive is a subsidiary of NIC USA, based in Olathe, Kan. Brent Hoffman, general manager for the Nebraska site, was out of town and did not return a message.
Corrigan, of CollegeHumor.com, said he never believed that votes from their site were spread evenly. From his previous experience skewing online polls, that doesn't happen.
He said that according to CollegeHumor.com's figures, there were 15,372 viewers who clicked on the plate vote link, taking them to Nebraska's site. He said the 14,000 number provided by Hein on Thursday was roughly consistent with that. It's possible not all those linking ultimately voted.
Corrigan said he originally decided to get involved in the Nebraska plate vote after receiving an e-mail suggestion.
CollegeHumor.com is not a small-time operation. The New York-based Web site that launched in 1999 has more than 50 employees and an office in Manhattan.
If CollegeHumor.com did determine the outcome of the Nebraska plate vote, Corrigan offers no apologies. After all, the winning plate had been offered up as a choice by the state.
"I don't personally feel guilty about it," he said. "We did it in good fun." But it's fun that has real-world consequences for Nebraskans, Hein said.
The Department of Motor Vehicles has a timeline to meet in order to get 2.4 million plates -- two each for 1.2 million vehicles -- manufactured by 2011.
"It's kind of a sad statement when someone's fun is having impacts on other people," Hein said.
--Contact the writer: 402-473-9583, [email protected] To see more of the Omaha World-Herald, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.omaha.com. Copyright (c) 2009, Omaha World-Herald, Neb. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.
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