Friend of the Court Effort Yields Results!

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Friend of the Court Effort Yields Results!
Ashley Kohls, Vice President of Government Affairs

Nebraska Cattlemen, alongside seven other Nebraska agriculture organizations, filed an Amicus Brief supporting the state’s long-standing multicounty signature requirement for ballot initiatives. This signature distribution obligation for petition initiatives requires at least five percent of registered voters in 38 out of the State’s 93 counties for the petition question to secure a place on the ballot. The proposed change in signature requirements would essentially silence the rural voice, consolidating political power to urban areas of Nebraska.

This multicounty signature requirement ensures a voice for urban and rural voters across the state by ensuring statewide support of ballot initiatives. Multicounty signature requirements, like Nebraska’s, reflect the very same principles of compromise and balancing of rural and urban interests that our nation was founded on.

For context and background – in May, the ACLU of Nebraska and Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana filed a lawsuit alleging that the State’s signature requirement to place a question on the ballot is unconstitutional; specifically implying that the layers of signatures required violate the one-person, one-vote rules. In June, a federal judge agreed, issuing a stay that ordered the Nebraska Secretary of State to not enforce the multicounty rule. However, in early July, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on the lower Court’s injunction, reinstating enforcement of the signature requirement. I want to be explicit in noting that Nebraska Cattlemen does NOT have a position regarding the contents of this specific petition. That said, Nebraska Cattlemen greatly values the multicounty rule’s necessity, thus giving our organization an opinion regarding the merits of this particular lawsuit!

Changing the signature requirements in Nebraska could open the door to endless ballot initiatives from outside groups that would threaten farms, ranches, and rural communities across the state. A careful review of Supreme Court and Eighth Circuit precedent demonstrates that Nebraska’s multicounty requirement does not violate the one-person, one-vote rule – a signature on a petition to qualify an initiative for a ballot is not a vote. The brief focused on balancing differing geographic interests, explicitly concentrating on the need to give both urban and rural citizens a voice on issues that impact the entire state. The brief highlights that balancing rural and urban interests is particularly important in a state like Nebraska, where agriculture has an out-sized economic impact relative to the State’s population. Given the importance of agriculture to Nebraska’s economy, it is all the more critical that initiative measures garner a certain threshold of statewide support before appearing on the general election ballot. The multicounty signature requirement accomplishes this goal by requiring petition initiatives to be circulated across urban and rural counties, ensuring they reach the most impacted citizens. Nebraska Cattlemen believes without the multicounty requirement, Nebraska’s petition process allows urban interests to silence the rural voice.

On August 31, 2022, the 8th District Circuit Court filed their opinion regarding the Crista Eggers, et al. v. Robert Evnen case pertaining to the multicounty provision within the ballot petition process in Nebraska. The over-simplified option states that the Secretary claims, and the Court accepts, that there should be a distinction between the right to vote for a political representative and the right to vote on an initiative, the latter right granted only by the states and thus not guaranteed by the Federal Constitution.
I should note – one 8th District Circuit Court dissented from the option, stating the right to vote on initiative petitions, while not specifically in the Federal Constitution, should be included as part of the right to vote. Voting for presidential electors, the dissenting judge wrote, is not in Constitution either.
This court opinion is excellent news for Nebraska Cattlemen members, but the work doesn’t stop here! Nebraska Cattlemen members and staff will continue to advocate for rural voices in direct democracy (the petition process) to ensure the entire state has a say in developing state statutes outside of the Unicameral.

Relevant Petition Initiative Facts:
• Any person, group, or association can use the petition process in Nebraska. However, only voters registered in Nebraska may sign the petition.
• In Nebraska, the number of required signatures is tied to the number of registered voters in the state as of the deadline for filing signatures, which is fourth months before the election.
o As of September 1, 2022, there are 1,240,158 registered voters in Nebraska.
• The following are the requirements for the types of citizen-initiated measures in Nebraska:
o Initiated Constitutional Amendment (ICA): 10 percent of registered voters
o Initiated State Statute (ISS): 7 percent of registered voters
• In addition, signatures must be collected from 5% of the registered voters in 38 of the 93 Nebraska counties.
• Did you know the U.S. Constitution is silent on direct democracy (the petition process)?
o Direct Democracy – a form of government in which policies and laws are decided by a majority of all those eligible rather than by a body of elected representatives.
o Representative Democracy – a form of government in which the people elect officials to create and vote on laws, policies, and other government matters on their behalf.

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