Kent Bernbeck, a Nebraska resident who has been active for 20 years to protect the initiative process in that state, has launched an initiative petition that would amend the state constitution, so as to return the number of signatures required for statewide initiatives and referenda to the standard that was in effect before 1994.
Before 1994, Nebraska initiatives required signatures equal in number to 10% of the last gubernatorial vote, to amend the State Constitution; and 7% of the last gubernatorial vote, to amend a statute. A statewide referendum petition needed 5% of the last gubernatorial vote. But, in 1994, the State Supreme Court ruled in Duggan v Beermann, 515 NW 2d 788, that the actual base of the percentages should be the number of registered voters, not the last gubernatorial vote. Back when the initiative and referendum has first existed in Nebraska in 1912, most counties didn’t require voter registration so it was impossible to base the requirement on the number of registered voters. By 1988, when voter registration was established throughout the state, one of the Constitution’s references to the number of signatures was changed inadvertently to the number of registered voters, but another section of the State Constitution was not changed, so the situation was ambiguous, and the State Supreme Court resolved it unfavorably to initiative proponents.
Bernback had an op-ed in the January 27 Omaha World-Herald about his new petition to restore the base for the percentage as the gubernatorial vote. One of the worst aspects of the existing law is that proponents of an initiative or referendum can’t even know how many signatures they need, while they are working on their petition, because the number depends on how many registered voters there are when they submit the petition.