By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Organizers of an effort to reinstate Nebraska’s death penalty are confident that they have collected enough signatures to place the issue on the 2016 ballot, a spokesman for the group said Wednesday.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty is expected to submit signatures to the secretary of state’s office on Wednesday, one day before the deadline to challenge the repeal law that lawmakers approved in May.
The group needs roughly 57,000 valid voter signatures to place the issue on the statewide general election ballot, and double that number to halt the death penalty repeal before the new law goes into effect on Sunday.
“We’ve expressed confidence from the beginning that getting 57,000 signatures was doable,” said Chris Peterson, a spokesman for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty.
Supporters of the effort have scheduled a 3 p.m. news conference at the Nebraska Capitol to announce the signature total alongside key supporters, including state senators and the mother of a woman who was fatally shot during a botched robbery at a Norfolk bank in 2002. Peterson declined to say whether the group expects to reach the higher threshold of nearly 114,000 signatures.
Nebraska lawmakers abolished the death penalty in May when they voted by the narrowest possible margin to override Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto. Ricketts, a Republican, assailed the Legislature as out of touch with the wishes of most residents. Nebraska was the first traditionally conservative state to abolish the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973. The number of executions in the United States has gradually declined in recent years. Nebraska was the 19th state to abolish capital punishment, as has the District of Columbia, while the death penalty is legal in 31 states and for some federal crimes.
The 30-19 override vote was largely due to conservative state senators joining forces with more traditional death penalty opponents who have fought unsuccessfully for decades to eliminate the punishment. Some senators said they opposed it for religious and moral reasons, while others cast it as an inefficient government program that wastes tax money.
Nebraska hasn’t executed an inmate since 1997, and has never done so using the state’s current three-drug lethal injection protocol. The state currently has 10 men on death row, but officials currently lack two of the required drugs and have struggled to obtain them legally.
The signature announcement will cap an 82-day petition drive heavily financed by Ricketts and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. The governor had given $200,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty as of the last filing deadline on July 31, while his father had donated $100,000. The group raised a total of more than $652,000 from 40 individual donors and seven groups classified as businesses, political action committees and other entities.
The largest donation in July came from the conservative, Washington-based Judicial Crisis Network, which gave $200,000. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty relied on a combination of paid and volunteer petition circulators, and was aided by an Arizona-based strategist who specializes in ballot campaigns.
Death penalty opponents had hoped Nebraska could serve as an example for other conservative states that are considering abolition, but placing the issue before voters could demonstrate that the public still supports capital punishment.
While most Americans continue to back capital punishment, the Nebraska Legislature’s vote illustrates a growing conservative argument against it, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.
“What the Nebraska Legislature did is going to have an effect regardless of whether the repeal issue goes onto the ballot,” said Dunham, whose group takes no stance on the death penalty but often criticizes how it’s administered. “The message that conservative legislators can reach across the aisle with moderate and liberal legislators - that message is still there and still resonates.”
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will submit its signatures to the Nebraska secretary of state’s office, which then sends each box back to local county officials to verify each signature. The process is expected to take about 40 days