LINCOLN — It appears voters in Nebraska will have the final say on the future of the death penalty.
Supporters of the death penalty in Nebraska said they turned over 166,692 petition signatures Wednesday, which if verified, would suspend the repeal of capital punishment in the state until the issue goes before voters in November 2016.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty needed about 57,000 verified signatures — 5 percent of the state's registered voters — to put the issue to a vote and about 114,000 — 10 percent of registered voters — to stop the repeal from going into effect until after the 2016 vote takes place.
Standing in front of boxes and boxes of signed petitions at a Wednesday news conference, state Sen. Mike Groene said Nebraskans — the second house — will now have their say.
State Treasurer Don Stenberg, state Sen. Beau McCoy and Vivian Tuttle, mother of Evonne Tuttle, who was killed in 2002 during a bank robbery in Norfolk, were at the news conference. Stenberg and McCoy co-chaired the petition drive. Groene, of North Platte, and Tuttle said they gathered more than 1,700 and 1,900 signatures, respectively.
Groene said people "flocked" to sign petitions.
The group began collecting signatures June 6, and paid circulators and volunteers spent every day since circulating petitions in all counties across the state. McCoy said over half of the 595 petition circulators were volunteers.
Organizers of the petition drive said they expected to have no problem meeting the additional threshold of signatures from 5 percent of registered voters in at least 38 counties. Petitions, they said, include signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in 70 of the state's 93 counties.
In May, Nebraska made international headlines when the Legislature voted 30-19 to override Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of LB268, introduced by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, which repealed the death penalty. The count included votes to repeal cast by senators who identify as conservative. One of the senators who worked hard to gather repeal votes in the Legislature was Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash, who identifies himself as a conservative Republican, and who is also Catholic.
Ricketts and his father, Joe Ricketts, have been reported as the largest individual financial contributors to the campaign, which had raised $652,000 by the end of July, as reported to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. At the last filing with the commission, the governor and his father had contributed at least $300,000.
The Judicial Crisis Network, a group committed to the U.S. Constitution and to limited government, contributed $200,000 on July 27.
Nebraskans for Public Safety, which favors repeal of the death penalty, had raised $433,500 as of the end of July. About $400,000 of that came from the Proteus Action League of Amherst, Massachusetts, a civil rights and social action advocacy group.
Another group, Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, is closely monitoring the initial results of the death penalty referendum signature-gathering campaign and will await an official decision from the Nebraska Secretary of State’s office, the group said in a news release.
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“Just like the legislators they elected, we believe the more Nebraskans learn about the failures of capital punishment, the more they will be inclined to get rid of it,” said the Rev. Stephen Griffith, incoming executive director of the organization.
Griffith said that while it looks like the pro-death penalty group got signatures from 10 percent of registered voters, it appears to have failed to attract broad-based financial support because Gov. Ricketts, his father and a handful of their associates provided the bulk of funds.
“It is evident that grassroots Nebraskans have already rejected the death penalty with their pocketbooks,” Griffith said.
During the next 14 months, he said, Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty will continue to do what it has done for three decades: Have conversations with Nebraskans across the political spectrum about why capital punishment has failed in the state.
Matt Maly, coordinator for Nebraska Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said he’s sure Nebraskans who learn about capital punishment will turn against it.
“Once our state’s Second House learns all of the facts, we are confident they too will reject our broken death penalty,” Maly said.
The petitions will go to the Secretary of State's Office, where they will be counted, separated by county and numbered, and then sent to local officials for verification.
Local election officials in each county will verify whether the signer is a registered voter. Each signature will be compared with voter registration records.
Those officials must return the verified petitions to the secretary of state within 40 days after receiving them, although an additional 10 days can be granted in unusual circumstances. The secretary of state will then review the petitions and total the number of valid signatures. If there are sufficient valid signatures, he will certify the measure for the general election ballot.
Attorney General Doug Peterson will write the ballot question or title that summarizes in 100 words or less the purpose of the measure. He will also provide material that explains the effect of a vote for or against the measure to appear on the ballot.
If the language is not challenged in court, a pamphlet written and produced by the secretary of state that contains the ballot title and arguments for and against the measure will be made available to voters at least six weeks prior to the election.
Public hearings on the measure will be conducted in each congressional district within eight weeks prior to the election.