Nebraska Voters Restore The Death Penalty

State lawmakers fought the governor to abolish capital punishment in 2015.

Nebraska voters have successfully brought the death penalty back to their state after it was abolished following a narrow legislative vote in 2015. 

Referendum No. 426 asked voters if they should repeal the legislative bill from 2015 that abolished the death penalty and replaced it with life without parole. It won with more than 57 percent of the vote. 

Despite Nebraska’s Tuesday vote, the U.S. trend of moving away from the death penalty will continue, said Equal Justice USA Executive Director Shari Silberstein.

“Death sentences and executions are at all-time lows. The majority of states have either ended the death penalty, suspended it, or declined to execute anyone in the last decade. The death penalty may very well be gone nationwide before Nebraska ever carries out another execution. This vote sentences Nebraska taxpayers to spend millions more wasted dollars, as the death penalty continues towards it’s inevitable demise.” 

A coalition of both conservative and liberal lawmakers in Nebraska, with its unique unicameral or one-house system, passed a repeal of the death penalty in May of 2015. Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) vetoed the bill days later, only to have lawmakers strike back yet again to override the gubernatorial veto. 

But within 90 days, supporters of capital punishment collected enough signatures to put the question to Nebraska voters as a 2016 ballot referendum. 

Executions are still unlikely in Nebraska even as the death penalty returns to law. Nebraska hasn’t actually carried out an execution since 1997 and it currently only has 10 inmates on death row. 

Like many of the other 31 states with the death penalty, Nebraska has had trouble finding lethal injection drugs. Last year, Ricketts tried to illegally import execution drugs from India. 

The logistical challenges to carrying out the death penalty represent just a one aspect of why it faced opposition last year. A growing number of conservatives view the death penalty as inconsistent with core conservative values of being pro-life, fiscally conservative and favoring limited government oversight.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said what’s significant is that Nebraska became the first conservative legislature to explore the nuances of the death penalty and then opt to reject it. 

“The message from the legislature will remain the same,” Dunham said. “Other conservative legislators in other states have already begun to pick up on that message.” 

Nebraska’s death penalty vote is a stronger reflection of internal Nebraska politics than national trends regarding capital punishment, Duhnam noted.

Ricketts personally bankrolled efforts to restore the death penalty following his stinging veto override. Ricketts’ family owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team, and his father, Joe, is a major Republican donor who founded the investment company TD Ameritrade. 

Noting the May 2015 vote was not the first time the legislature had overridden a gubernatorial veto, Ricketts believed that his “political prestige and his authority as the governor was being challenged by legislature,” Dunham said.  

“So he chose this issue, among the various times he’d be overridden, as the one on which he would make a personal stand and stake his political reputation.”  

Republican Sen. Colby Coash was among the state conservative fighting the effort to revive the death penalty and remained hopeful in the face of Tuesday’s vote.

“We’ve had a very important conversation in Nebraska about our broken death penalty,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “This vote isn’t the end.” 



Capital Punishment Methods Through History