The Slatest

Nebraska Will Hold Statewide Vote on Banning Death Penalty

Nebraska state capitol
The Nebraska state capitol building in Lincoln.

Joseph Sohm/

In May, a bill abolishing the death penalty in Nebraska passed the state’s Legislature with the support of a number of conservative lawmakers. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, however, is a death penalty supporter—the bill was passed over his veto—and a petition drive that he helped fund has now succeeded in temporarily invalidating the death penalty ban and triggering a statewide referendum on the issue that will be held in November 2016. From the Omaha World-Herald:

Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale said Friday that he has sent letters certifying the success of the petition drive mounted by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, a group backed by Gov. Pete Ricketts. Nebraskans for the Death Penalty needed to collect at least 56,942 signatures, or 5 percent of the state’s registered voters, to place a death penalty referendum on the ballot. Signatures from at least 10 percent of voters, or 113,883, were required to keep the repeal from going into effect.


Those requirements were cleared by a wide margin:

“More than 143,000 signatures were verified to our office from counties where signatures were collected, which was more than enough to meet each of those thresholds,” Gale said in a press release.

The Nebraskans for the Death Penalty group raised and spent more than $900,000 during its petition drive, $200,000 of which was donated by Pete Ricketts and $100,000 of which was given by his father, Joe, who is the founder of TD Ameritrade. (The Ricketts family also owns 95 percent of the Chicago Cubs, and Pete’s brother Tom runs the franchise on a day-to-day basis as its chairman.)

Nebraska has not actually executed a prisoner since 1997, and the fate of the 10 prisoners on the state’s death row was unclear even before this latest legal twist; in addition to the constitutional questions involved after multiple changes to the law, the state does not currently possess the drugs required to carry out a lethal injection, which is the method of execution mandated by Nebraska statute.

An April ACLU poll found that Nebraskans supported the idea of replacing the death penalty with life sentences by a margin of 47 to 35 percent with 17 percent undecided.