In May, Nebraska lawmakers voted to abolish the death penalty, narrowly overriding a veto from the governor to make the state the 19th to ban capital punishment. But opponents of the measure said the fight was not over and immediately shifted their focus to getting the issue on a ballot next year.
On Wednesday, these opponents announced that their group — known as Nebraskans for the Death Penalty — had gathered more than 166,000 signatures.
If these signatures are deemed valid, they would be more than enough to suspend the law from taking place until after the issue appears on a ballot in November 2016. Opponents of the death penalty repeal needed signatures of 10 percent of registered voters by Thursday to make this happen, which meant getting signatures from about 115,000 people, based on the number of registered voters reported by the Nebraska Secretary of State last year. (They also need to have five percent of the registered voters in 38 of 93 counties in the state.)
Putting the issue on the ballot without suspending the law’s implementation would have required 5 percent of registered voters by Thursday.
State Sen. Beau McCoy, a Republican, said after the state legislature repealed the death penalty that he believed that residents of Nebraska should “have an opportunity to weigh in on the issue.” McCoy, who is also co-chairman of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, tweeted an image of boxes with signatures Wednesday afternoon:
Once signatures have been submitted, they need to be validated before the Nebraska Secretary of State will approve the measure appearing on the ballot next year.
An opposing group, Nebraskans for Public Safety, released statements Wednesday criticizing the push for a ballot referendum and expressing confidence that executions would not resume.
“This complex legal landscape now presents new questions and unknown challenges that has no clear answers,” Danielle Conrad, a spokeswoman for the group, said in a statement. “Sadly, Nebraska taxpayers will foot the bill for these lengthy and costly legal battles instead of focusing on more positive priorities like how to improve education and reducing taxes.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), who had vetoed the bill repealing the death penalty and said he was “appalled” by the law, has helped finance this latest effort to retain the death penalty. He donated at least $200,000 to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, according to the Omaha World-Herald, while his father, Joe Ricketts, founder of T.D. Ameritrade, gave the group another $100,000.
Nebraska has not executed an inmate since 1997. There are currently 10 inmates on the state’s death row. The bill passed by lawmakers this year converts their death sentences to life in prison, though Doug Peterson, the state’s attorney general (and a critic of repealing the death penalty), said he will fight attempts to change these sentences.
Some lawmakers in Nebraska who wanted to repeal capital punishment offered a conservative argument for repealing the death penalty there, painting it as an example of government waste. Other lawmakers said they supported the bill for religious reasons or because of cases where people were wrongly convicted.
A majority of Americans support the death penalty, though this support has been falling consistently for two decades. The sentiment is much stronger among Republicans than Democrats, as capital punishment is supported by more than three-quarters of Republicans while it is opposed by a majority of Democrats.