Death penalty referendum campaign gearing up
June 26th, 2015
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. â€œAre 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?â€ Dormer asked.[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/deathpenalty6_26_15KVNO01.wav]
â€œYes,â€ declared Evelyn Johnson, enthusiastically. Asked later why, she said repealing the death penalty let murdererâ€™s escape justice. â€œI think that if they take a life, they should lose their life,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s not right.â€
As Dormer continued asking people to sign, some said they were too busy, or werenâ€™t registered voters. Others, like Andrew Frazier of Lincoln, said no. Asked later why, Frazier said the death penalty reflects societyâ€™s failure to help rehabilitate people. â€œItâ€™s morally, ethically wrong and it doesnâ€™t represent us as people of this state,â€ 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. â€œThese sorts of things take a while to ramp up. The first day that you start collecting signatures youâ€˜re not collecting 2,000 signatures a day, I can assure you that,â€ 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. â€œWeâ€™re planning on needing maybe a million dollars to make sure we can circulate enough petitions, gather enough signatures, by our Aug. 27 deadline,â€ he said.
Peterson said he is taking a cue from last yearâ€™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 yearâ€™s minimum wage campaign. Nordquist says it is hard getting people to work on political issues. â€œYou also need to be very aggressive in getting people to sign the petitions with their signature because theyâ€™re just not as engaged. And a lot of people just shy away from anything that looks like political debate or political discourse,â€ 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 Penaltyâ€™s Chris Peterson says he expects an effort to suppress votersâ€™ rights. â€œWe expect that the opposition here will be well-funded and theyâ€™ll employ any variety of tactics to try and prevent Nebraskans from being able to vote on this issue,â€ 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. â€œI think that theyâ€™ll push as civilly and respectfully as possible â€“ try to present a counterargument at the site. But also I think theyâ€™re going to spend a lot of time tracking to make sure that things are done right,â€ he said.
If not, that could lead to legal challenges â€“ another potential step in the journey Nebraskans may take on this issue for the next year and a half.
Editorâ€™s note: An NET News special â€œNebraskaâ€™s Death Penalty: Whatâ€™s Next?â€ 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.
An NET News special â€œNebraskaâ€™s Death Penalty: Whatâ€™s Next?â€ 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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