Death penalty referendum campaign gearing up

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June 26th, 2015

Evelyn Johnson, left, waits as husband Dayle signs a petition for Jennifer Dormer, right (Photo by Justin Cheney, NET)

Evelyn Johnson, left, waits as husband Dayle signs a petition for Jennifer Dormer, right (Photo by Justin Cheney, NET)

Supporters of capital punishment are on the streets gathering signatures for a referendum to keep the death penalty on the books, after the Nebraska Legislature voted to repeal it. What could be long campaign on the issue is now well underway.


On a busy weekday morning outside the Lancaster County motor vehicle office in Lincoln, petition circulator Jennifer Dormer called out as Evelyn Johnson and her husband Dayle left the office. “Are you folks registered voters in the state of Nebraska? Are you interested in signing the petition to get the death penalty put on the ballot?” Dormer asked.

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“Yes,” declared Evelyn Johnson, enthusiastically. Asked later why, she said repealing the death penalty let murderer’s escape justice. “I think that if they take a life, they should lose their life,” she said. “It’s not right.”

As Dormer continued asking people to sign, some said they were too busy, or weren’t registered voters. Others, like Andrew Frazier of Lincoln, said no. Asked later why, Frazier said the death penalty reflects society’s failure to help rehabilitate people. “It’s morally, ethically wrong and it doesn’t represent us as people of this state,” he said.

Nebraska voters may have the final word. If death penalty supporters collect about 57,000 valid signatures by Aug. 27, the issue will be on the November, 2016 ballot. If they get 114,000 signatures, that would keep the old death penalty law on the books until voters decide the issue.

That means death penalty supporters have to shoot for collecting about 2,000 signatures a day. Chris Peterson, spokesman for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, said that involves a lot of work. “These sorts of things take a while to ramp up. The first day that you start collecting signatures you‘re not collecting 2,000 signatures a day, I can assure you that,” he said.

But Peterson said as the campaign goes on, it will involve more volunteers, as well as paid circulators who show they can do a good job. And of course, that takes money. “We’re planning on needing maybe a million dollars to make sure we can circulate enough petitions, gather enough signatures, by our Aug. 27 deadline,” he said.

Peterson said he is taking a cue from last year’s successful initiative campaign for a minimum wage increase. That campaign reported spending about $833,000 during the signature-gathering phase.

On the other side, a coalition of death penalty opponents is asking people not to sign the petitions. Nebraskans for Public Safety is also planning to use both volunteers and people who are paid to make their case. The group recently announced it has received $400,000 from a foundation in Massachusetts.

Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha is a death penalty opponent and led last year’s minimum wage campaign. Nordquist says it is hard getting people to work on political issues. “You also need to be very aggressive in getting people to sign the petitions with their signature because they’re just not as engaged. And a lot of people just shy away from anything that looks like political debate or political discourse,” he said.

That may become harder to do. Nordquist says opponents of the petition drive will try to persuade people not to sign. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty’s Chris Peterson says he expects an effort to suppress voters’ rights. “We expect that the opposition here will be well-funded and they’ll employ any variety of tactics to try and prevent Nebraskans from being able to vote on this issue,” he said.

Petition drive opponents say they will be using their free speech rights. Nordquist, though, said those opponents will be doing more than trying to persuade people not to sign. “I think that they’ll push as civilly and respectfully as possible – try to present a counterargument at the site. But also I think they’re going to spend a lot of time tracking to make sure that things are done right,” he said.

If not, that could lead to legal challenges – another potential step in the journey Nebraskans may take on this issue for the next year and a half.

Editor’s note: An NET News special “Nebraska’s Death Penalty: What’s Next?” will air June 26 at 6:30 Central on NET Radio, 7 Central on NET Television, and will be available on our website, netnebraska.org/news. The program features Sen. Beau McCoy, co-chair of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, and former Sen. Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU Nebraska, discussing the pros and cons of the petition drive to keep the death penalty in Nebraska law.

Programming Note:

An NET News special “Nebraska’s Death Penalty: What’s Next?” will air June 26 at 6:30 Central on NET Radio, 7 Central on NET Television, and will be available on our website, netnebraska.org/news. The program features Sen. Beau McCoy, co-chair of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, and former Sen. Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU Nebraska, discussing the pros and cons of the petition drive to keep the death penalty in Nebraska law.

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