Ninety days after the Nebraska legislature voted to repeal the death penalty, supporters of capital punishment say they have collected enough signatures to potentially bring it back.
Nebraskans For The Death Penalty beat the ballot referendum deadline by one day and on Wednesday afternoon delivered 166,692 signatures to Secretary of State John Gale's office.
The group needs 5 percent of the state's registered voters (approximately 57,000 signatures) to put a death penalty reinstatement measure on the ballot. Garnering 10 percent of registered voters (about 114,000 signatures) would suspend the legislature's repeal until the vote in November 2016.
The signatures now need to be verified, a process that could take about 40 days.
"The ‘strike rate’ we’re hearing is usually about 30 percent for signatures," a spokesman for the abolition group Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty told The Huffington Post, referring to the portion of petition signatures that is typically disqualified. "So they are likely to be close to the threshold for 10 percent of registered voters." If the verified signatures reach the 10 percent threshold, it means an automatic suspension of the law until the referendum.
State Sen. Beau McCoy (R) praised the success of the signature drive and the "tens of thousands" of volunteers who gathered signatures at county fairs, street corners and by going door to door in their neighborhoods.
"The success of the petition drive is a testament to the strong support of Nebraskans for keeping the death penalty but also to the volunteers from Omaha to Chadron and Fairbury to Pierce," McCoy said in a statement Wednesday.
Despite the passionate turnout, ballot campaigns have historically had limited success in the state, Nebraska Public Radio noted.
"That's great to have that passion. But then you have to take that passion amongst a small group of people and expand it to a statewide effort and that's difficult," said Dan Parsons, a Republican political consultant who has worked on several campaigns but is not affiliated with either side of the death penalty debate.
Death penalty supporters in the state have a powerful and deep-pocketed ally in the form of first-term Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), who donated at least $200,000 to Nebraskans For The Death Penalty. Ricketts' father founded the company that became TD Ameritrade; the Ricketts family owns the majority of the Chicago Cubs baseball team and part of the TV network CSN Chicago.
Ricketts' donation to the advocacy group has drawn criticism, with experts noting that Nebraska is the first state that had to override the governor's veto to repeal the death penalty.
Marc Hyden, the national advocacy coordinator of CCADP, estimated the opposition spent more than $600,000 on signature-gathering efforts.
"No matter how much money Governor Ricketts and his family spend on this referendum, it does not change the basic fact that they are trying to sell Nebraskans a lemon – a government program plagued by wrongful convictions, high costs, and long delays," he added in a later statement.
Hyden also criticized Ricketts' thorny attempts to import increasingly scarce lethal injection drugs from a broker in India. The Food and Drug Administration said such an import was illegal and that the agency would seize the drugs.
"Despite repeated promises, the Governor has failed to obtain the drugs needed to carry out even one execution," Hyden said in the statement. "The Governor has given Nebraskans zero reason to believe that he can fix the state’s irreparably broken death penalty."
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