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August 26, 2015

Nebraska group submits signatures to halt death penalty repeal and set up fascinating 2016 vote

As reported in this new AP article, the "organization campaigning to reinstate Nebraska's death penalty after lawmakers repealed it in May said Wednesday it has collected more than enough signatures to suspend the law before it goes into effect and place it before voters in 2016."  Here is more:

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which was heavily financed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family, said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state's counties. Nebraska's unicameral Legislature had voted to repeal capital punishment over the objection of Ricketts, becoming the first traditionally conservative state to do so in 42 years.

The pro-death penalty group needed roughly 57,000 valid signatures from registered voters to force a statewide referendum, and double that number to immediately halt the death penalty repeal going into effect. They appear to have exceeded the 10 percent of registered voters hurdle needed to block repeal pending a November 2016 ballot measure on the issue.

"Nebraskans sent a strong message about crime and punishment in our state by signing this petition in extraordinary numbers," said state treasurer and former attorney general Don Stenberg, a co-chair of the petition drive....

Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson, who supports the death penalty, said in a statement that the signatures are "presumptively valid" until determined otherwise. Stenberg said no one will know the exact number of valid signatures for at least a month, but the state constitution makes clear that petitions go into effect on the day they're submitted.

Even if the law is suspended, Nebraska currently has no way to execute any of the 10 men on death row because its lacks two of the three required lethal injection drugs and has struggled to obtain them legally. The state paid $54,400 in May to order the drugs from a broker in India, but federal authorities have said they can't be legally imported.

Nebraska lawmakers voted by the narrowest possible margin, 30-19, to override Ricketts' veto. Ricketts assailed the Legislature as out of touch with the wishes of most residents. The repeal vote was helped by an unusual coalition of conservative state senators and more traditional death penalty opponents who had fought unsuccessfully for decades to eliminate the punishment. Some conservatives 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 announcement of the number of signatures caps an 82-day petition drive backed 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.

I find these developments fascinating, especially because it highlights that the symbolism of the death penalty seems so much more important to so many folks than the practicalities of the death penalty. Practically speaking, with no executions in nearly 20 years, the legislature's abolition largely made de jure what was already a de facto reality in the state. But that largely symbolic decision obviously troubled a lot of Cornhuskers (and motivated some folks to put some serious money into this issue), and now the issue will be decided by direct democracy rather than by representative democracy.

Because I am a huge fan of direct democracy, and especially because it will be very interesting to follow the Cornhusker capital campaigning (and its funders' capital contributions), I am pleased that this crime-and-punishment issue will now come before the voters in 2016. Sadly, because Nebraska is not likely to become a swing state in the broader presidential scene, I doubt the many wanna-be Prez candidates will feel compelled to weigh in on this "local" issue. But it still seems possible that this vote could make Nebraska a significant focal point in the (never-ending) national debate over death penalty policy and practices.

August 26, 2015 at 06:26 PM | Permalink

Comments

I pledged allegiance to the "republic" for which we stand & think that works too.

If "symbolism" is important to the people, does this mean the candidates have to focus on that as compared to what really happens when the punishment is in place? So, we can have a few people chosen arbitrarily to be executed with a lot of effort and resources (some you think excessively are used to deal with the small portion of the criminal justice system involving capital crimes) spent so a few people might eventually be executed? This plebiscite apparently will often be a lot more about symbolism than the nitty-gritty which this blog covers.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 26, 2015 8:40:06 PM

I pledged allegiance to the "republic" for which we stand & think that works too.

If "symbolism" is important to the people, does this mean the candidates have to focus on that as compared to what really happens when the punishment is in place? So, we can have a few people chosen arbitrarily to be executed with a lot of effort and resources (some you think excessively are used to deal with the small portion of the criminal justice system involving capital crimes) spent so a few people might eventually be executed? This plebiscite apparently will often be a lot more about symbolism than the nitty-gritty which this blog covers.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 26, 2015 8:40:07 PM

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