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History of Nebraska's initiative laws

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Laws governing the initiative process in Nebraska have changed dramatically since the process was first enabled in 1912. In 2008, DiAnna Schimek--not for the first time--shepherded a bill through the Unicameral that imposes significant new restrictions on the initiative process. Schimek's bill, Nebraska Legislative Bill 39, was sponsored in her final term of office--she is leaving her long-held seat due to term limits imposed through the citizen initiative process.

After the process was first adopted in 1912, the first law regulating it was passed in 1913.

1913: Pro and con

The 1913 law allowed for arguments for and against proposed measures. The Nebraska Secretary of State was charged with maintaining a central voter file to accommodate mailings by pro and con forces.

Also in 1913, a law was passed imposing penalties for:

  • Signing the name of another
  • Knowingly signing your name more than once;
  • Falsely certifying signatures.

The penalty for violating these laws was two years in jail and/or a $500 fine.

1919: Notaries, residency, age, explanation

In 1919, a law was added requiring that when circulators signed the affidavit on the petition form certifying that they had circulated the petition, they must do so in front of notary public.

Additional requirements imposed in 1919 were:

  • Circulators were required to explain the legal impact of the petition.
  • Circulators were required to reside in the county where they collected signatures;
  • Circulators were required to be at least 18.

1925: Publication of ballot text

A 1925 law allowed the Sec. of State to use the Nebraska Press Association to publish petition texts publicly.

1931: Separate ballots

In 1931, legislators required separate ballots for initiatives and referenda.

1935: Constitutional amendments

The 1935 legislature clarified that constitutional amendments must appear on separate ballots.

1951: Circulator age, yes, no

In a major recodification in 1951, lawmakers raised the circulator age to twenty-one (21) and established “yes” and “no” language on ballots.

1951: For and against

In 1959, senators replaced “yes” and “no” with “for” and “against.”

1969: Crackdown on dittos

In 1969, a major recodification:

  • Required petition supporters to prevent fraud, deception, and misrepresentation.
  • The new law required that each signature must be examined by the state, and that the signatures must be delivered to county clerks and election commissioners by the Nebraska Secretary of State for this purpose.
  • The petition forms included a printed warning to circulators in bold type.
  • Petitioner signers were not allowed to use ditto marks anywhere on the petition. For example, a signer on line 18 was not allowed to use ditto marks to signify that he or she was signing the petition on the same date as the signer on line 17. Any petition forms with any ditto marks were to be discarded and all the signatures invalidated.

1971: No revisions

This year, an effort to allow initiative petitions to propose revisions to existing constitutional articles failed.

An effort to repeal the state's right of I&R altogether was quashed.

1973: Registered voters

In 1973, language was passed saying that to sign the petition, a person must be a "registered voter." This replaced the earlier "legal voter" language.

1977: Penalties for fraud

A 1977 criminal code defined penalties for petition fraud.

1978: County clerks

In 1978, legislators passed a bill requiring county clerks and commissioners to provide a place to sign petitions in their offices.

1981: Changing the form again

Legislators in 1981 modified the petition form and required a printed name in case of illegible signatures.

1982: County rule

This year, several senators tried but failed to pass a law prohibiting circulators from circulating outside their home counties.

1986: Publishing notice

In 1986, senators permitted petition notices in general circulation newspapers if there was no county paper.

1988: Signature requirement doubles

A 1988 constitutional amendment changed the signature requirement from 10% of votes cast for governor in the most recent election to 10% of all registered voters in the state. This had the effect of doubling the number of required signatures. Its parent was LB 248, sponsored by Sens. Tim Hall and Ernie Chambers.

A 1988 law established "willfully" and "knowingly" as standards for most petition crimes. The 1988 revision also removed cross-county circulator bond requirements and instead required that circulators register with the Secretary of State.

Senators tried but failed in 1988 to allow for voter registration up to petition filing deadline, thereby securing more legal signatures on petitions.

1989: Paid petitioners

In 1989, legislators reversed prohibition of paid circulators. They also:

  • Required additional filings with the Nebraska Accountability & Disclosure Commission;
  • Required that signatures must be turned in four months prior to an election;
  • Referenda must be filed within 90 days following the end of the legislative session during which the challenged law was enacted.

Several senators in 1989 tried, but failed, to allow themselves to endorse petition language prior to its placement on the ballot.

1990: Double for paid

State legislative opponents of initiative tried but failed in 1990 to double the signature requirement, if sponsors used any paid pcirculators.

1991: Retain vs. Repeal

The 1991 legislature replaced the "for" or "against" language with "retain" or "repeal" for referenda.

State legislative opponents of the initiative process tried in 1991, but failed, to allow themselves the perogative of placing on the ballot alternatives to any citizen-initiated proposals.

1992: Paid circulators

Legislators in 1992 required notice of paid petition circulators.

Unicameral opponents of initiative in 1992 tried, but failed, to require petitioners to act under minimum wage, worker comp, and unemployment laws.

1994: Outlaw paid petitioners

Several legislators tried, unsuccessfully, to outlaw the use of paid petition circulators.

Senators in 1994 removed a requirement for providing petitions to county clerks and commissioners.

The Nebraska Supreme Court concurred that in 1988, citizens had used the wrong formula for determining initiative petition signature requirements and had inadvertently doubled the signature requirement. However, the doubled-signature requirement was allowed to stand.

1995: The unconstitutional exact match law passes

This year, the Unicameral passed Nebraska Legislative Bill 337 (1995), a bill requiring that the information a voter puts on an initiative petition (signature, address, etc.) be an exact match of what is in the voter registration records in order for the signature to be counted as a valid signature. (A federal court of appeals in 1999, in the case of Stenberg v. Moore, threw out the law as unconstitutional.)

1996: Chicanery?

In 1996, then-Secretary of State Scott Moore struck over 20,000 signatures gathered for a property tax reform measure by asserting that the sponsors had to prove that signatures were valid, rather than putting the burden of proof on the state to prove that signatures were invalid. Moore required that signatures on petitions be exact matches, letter for letter, of the signatures on file with the government on voter registration cards. According to Nebraska taxpayer activist Doug Kagen, "His chicanery kept this issue off the ballot."

Also in 1996, in the case of Dobrovolny v. Moore, the Eighth Circuit upheld the Nebraska law which requires initiative proponents to circulate their petition, before they know how many signatures are needed on it.

1997: Kristensen fails; 8th Circuit rules

This year, then-Speaker of the Legislature Doug Kristensen pushed LR 7CA which would have:

  • Required that signatures be submitted in March, not July.
  • Require that signatures could only be collected in "approved locations".

Ernie Chambers, his colleague:

  • Said, "Not only would I like to make this (petition) process as difficult as possible, I would like to abolish it."
  • Opined that the petition process allows uninformed people to "contaminate, defile, and pollute the constitution.:
  • Proposed an amendment to increase from 7% to 14% the percentage of signatures needed for new state statutes.
  • Require signatures of 20% of registered voters for veto referendum.

In good news for initiative supporters, in 1997 the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in the case of Bernbeck v. Moore that Nebraska's law requiring petition circulators to be registered voters in Nebraska for at least 30 days before circulating an initiative petition was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.

In bad news for Nebraska initiative supporters, in 1997, the Unicameral successfully passed Nebraska Legislative Bill 460 (1997), its second attempt to require that signatures on petitions be "exact matches" of signatures on voter registration cards. (Two years later, in 1999, a federal court of appeals, in the case of Stenberg v. Moore threw out the law as unconstitutional.)

1998: Double vote fails

Sen. Jerry Warner promoted LR 12 in 1998 to force voters to approve proposed constitutional amendments by petition twice before enactment into law.

1999: Schimek takes charge

This year, in the first of her efforts to hinder initiatives, DiAnna Schimek shepherded through LR 32CA, which:

  • Required a petition for enactment of a law to win signatures of 7% of state registered voters and a petition to amend the state constitution to win signatures of 10% of registered voters.
  • Imposed Nebraska's unique three-year-rule, under which voters are not allowed to vote on the same or similar measure more than once every three years.
  • Imposed a single-subject rule.

The unicameral referred this measure to the ballot by a 42-0 vote. Ironically, since it addressed more than one subject, it was ultimately split into more than one ballot measure.

Doug Kristensen came back with another unsuccessful resolution, once which would have required citizens to sign initiative and referendum petitions only in the presence of public officials.

His colleague, Sen. Bud Robinson, proposed an unsuccessful measure to:

  • Require volunteer and paid petition circulators to register with the Secretary of State within five (5) days of collecting a signature;
  • Allowing newspapers to publish the names of all circulators.
  • Require initiative sponsors to submit petitions to each county clerk and election commissioner.

Senators in 1999 also attempted to pass LB 729, which would have:

  • Required the Secretary of State to not accept for filing an initiative or referendum petition that interfered with the right of the legislature to raise taxes.
  • Required the Sec. of State or District Court of Lancaster County to affirm the constitutionality of a petition issue before allowing it on the ballot.

Supreme Court rules on valid signatures

In rare good news for Nebraska initiative supporters, in 1999, the Nebraska Supreme Court in the case of Stenberg v. Moore invalidated Nebraska Legislative Bill 337 (1995) and Nebraska Legislative Bill 460 (1997). The effect of their ruling was to nullify statute requiring that the information a voter puts on an initiative petition (signature, address, etc.) be an exact match of what is in the voter registration records in order for the signature to be counted as a valid signature.

2000: Amendment 3 fails

In 2000, the resolution that became Amendment 3A on the ballot, sponsored by Doug Kristensen, would have:

  • Required voters to vote in two successive statewide elections to pass a petition-initiated proposed constitutional amendment.
  • Required petition sponsors to submit signatures in nine months before an election, instead of four months.

Voters rejected Amendment 3A.

2003: Schimek Gets Creative

In 2003, Schimek introduced LB 154, which failed. It would have:

  • Make it more difficult for petitioners to submit petitions to the Secretary of State;
  • Once an initiative had been certified for the ballot, petition opponents would be allowed to file suit against the petition sponsors if they wanted to try to de-certify it, rather than against the Secretary of State.

2006: Petitioner access

A federal lawsuit, Groene v. Seng, successfully established that city officials in Grand Island, Lincoln and Omaha were unconstitutionally infringing on the right of circulators to collect signatures on public property. The cities lost, and they also had to pay the legal fees of the plaintiff, Mike Groene.

2008: Schimek's swan song

In Schimek's final term in the legislature due to voter-imposition of term limits, Schimek may have taken Nebraska's initiative process down with her as she pushed Nebraska Legislative Bill 39 through over a gubernatorial veto. LB 39:

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