By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A signature-gathering campaign to place Nebraska’s death penalty on the ballot was set to begin Saturday with paid and volunteer circulators hitting the streets in Omaha, Lincoln and dozens of counties.
The group Nebraskans for the Death Penalty was training circulators and printing thousands of petitions on Friday after receiving certified copies from the Secretary of State’s office.
Organizers have to gather roughly 57,000 signatures of registered voters by Aug. 27 to place the law on the ballot, and 115,000 to suspend the law before voters decide in November 2016. They also must gather signatures from at least 5 percent of the registered voters in 38 of Nebraska’s 93 counties.
The group formed after Nebraska lawmakers voted last month to repeal capital punishment, overturning Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto.
The ballot campaign “will firmly establish that the people of Nebraska want this on the books, and expect to have it carried out,” said State Treasurer Don Stenberg, the new group’s co-chairman.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty spokesman Chris Peterson said he didn’t yet know how many paid and volunteer circulators will participate, but organizers were pleasantly surprised by the initial response.
Unlike last year’s successful minimum wage ballot campaign, the death penalty drive is likely to face organized resistance.
Peterson said he anticipates a blocking campaign, where opponents try to prevent a measure from getting on the ballot by urging the public not to sign or catching circulators in violation of state law.
Any group that does so will have to register with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission once it raises, receives or expends more than $5,000 in a year, said Frank Daley, the commission’s executive director. Daley said his office has already received inquiries from groups that would oppose the ballot measure.
Death penalty opponents plan to present their case to the public with a coalition likely to include faith leaders and Nebraska residents who have watched the killers of their friends and loved ones sit for decades on death row.
“We’re definitely going to be involved,” said Stacy Anderson, executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Anderson questioned whether voters would support keeping the death penalty given the cost, time spent on appeals and the state’s inability to carry out executions.
ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad said plans for an opposition campaign are preliminary but would likely include fraud monitoring and public education efforts to ensure a balanced debate.
“We strongly believe the Legislature made a sound decision to replace our broken death penalty with smart alternatives that put public safety first - like life in prison,” she said.
Earlier Friday, petition-drive organizers announced endorsements from Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and the Nebraska County Attorneys Association. State Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha and Stenberg, a former attorney general, will serve as honorary co-chairs of the campaign.
Stenberg - who served as attorney general from 1991 to 2003 - said he believes the death penalty can still function in Nebraska, despite repeated legal challenges and difficulties in obtaining the required lethal injection drugs.
He said that when he took office, Nebraska had not brought a death penalty case to conclusion in more than 30 years. But during his tenure, three inmates were executed in the electric chair: Harold Otey in 1994, John Joubert in 1996 and Robert Williams, who was the last one in 1997.
The Nebraska Supreme Court declared executions by electric chair unconstitutional in 2008.
“The approach I took was to be very aggressive in pursuing the death penalty cases that we had at that time,” Stenberg said in an interview.
Some death penalty opponents argue that even with the punishment on the books, Nebraska will never execute another inmate. Nebraska currently lacks two of the drugs required to carry out executions.
Ricketts announced in May that the state has purchased both drugs, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Nebraska can’t legally import one of them.
The pro-death penalty group has hired the Arizona-based Lincoln Strategy Group to manage its paid petition-circulator campaign, and Republican political consultant Rod Edwards as field director to recruit volunteers.
Peterson said the group could spend an amount “in the ballpark” of the roughly $830,000 that last year’s minimum wage campaign spent to gather 135,000 signatures. Campaigning for the increase once it was on the ballot raised the total cost to $1.5 million.
Peterson said the group plans to circulate petitions at parades, festivals, county fairs and other large events.