LINCOLN, Nebraska — Organizers of a campaign to reinstate Nebraska's death penalty say they're cautiously optimistic that they'll gather enough signatures to place the issue on the 2016 ballot, triggering a showdown with opponents who pledge to wage a strong campaign of their own.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty has less than a month remaining to gather about 58,000 signatures before the Aug. 27 submission deadline. The group was launched on June 1, with heavy financial backing from Gov. Pete Ricketts and his father, TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts.
"I don't want to discount the sheer magnitude of what it takes to get out and collect signatures, but it has gone well," said Chris Peterson, a spokesman for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty. "We're cautiously optimistic that we're going to be successful."
Peterson declined to release the specific number collected but said the campaign has received signatures from all counties except Sioux County in northwestern Nebraska.
Peterson said the campaign has relied on several hundred petition circulators, both paid and volunteer. The volunteers include the parents of Andrea Kruger, one of four people fatally shot by Nikko Jenkins in Omaha in 2013, and Vivian Tuttle, whose daughter Evonne Tuttle was murdered during a botched 2002 bank robbery in Norfolk. Lincoln Strategy Group, an Arizona consultant hired by the group, is managing the campaign's paid circulators.
If the measure reaches the ballot, voters could repeal a law approved by the Legislature in May, when senators overrode Ricketts' veto by the narrowest possible margin. Nebraska was the first traditionally conservative state to abolish the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973.
To prevent the law from going into effect before the 2016 election, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty would have to collect about 115,000 signatures. In either case, the signatures must come from at least 5 percent of the registered voters in 38 of Nebraska's 93 counties.
Peterson said petition circulators have worked at county fairs, concerts, parades, rodeos, ice cream socials and sporting events, and set up tables outside of courthouses and other government buildings. Some events have generated hundreds of signatures, he said, while others turned out to be duds.
"Last weekend we had volunteers at a county fair, and they got nowhere," he said. "Then they went to a fair in a neighboring county and did great."
State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, a volunteer with Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, said circulators in Lincoln County have already gathered signatures from about 12 percent of the county's registered voters, placing them well over the minimum threshold if those signatures are deemed valid.
Groene said the group is seeking more to account for signatures that are declared invalid, and to demonstrate strong support in favor of letting voters decide the issue. Groene said he has circulated petitions in seven western Nebraska counties, and plans to travel to Chase and Dundy counties in mid-August.
"People run to us when they see us," he said. "We want to send a strong message."
Death penalty opponents said they have sent observers to petition sites to watch for fraud and ensure that circulators are following state law. They also will campaign against the death penalty if the issue is approved for the ballot, said Danielle Conrad, who is leading the Nebraskans for Public Safety campaign against the referendum.
"Our campaign has received an incredible positive outpouring of support from conservative leaders, faith groups, victims' families and traditional death penalty opponents that allows us to prepare a strong and competitive effort for a general election campaign if needed," said Conrad, a former state senator and current executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska.
Another group, Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, is working to appeal to voters with arguments that the death penalty system is broken, too expensive and runs counter to pro-life values. Nebraska hasn't executed an inmate since 1997, and has never carried out an execution with the current lethal injection protocol because of appeals and problems obtaining the required drugs.
"We'll definitely continue as long as necessary," said Matt Maly, a group spokesman who represents anti-death penalty conservatives. "If (death penalty supporters) are able to get the required number of signatures, it will be a full-on campaign."