LINCOLN, Neb. – A new federal court decision removes a hurdle for Nebraskans seeking to place proposed laws or constitutional amendments on the 2022 statewide ballot.
Today, a judge issued an order temporarily blocking enforcement of a provision of Nebraska’s constitution that requires ballot initiative or referendum campaigns to collect signatures from 5% of registered voters in 38 counties to qualify for the ballot. The preliminary injunction will remain in effect pending a final decision on the constitutionality of the requirement. In the interim, campaigns must still collect a certain total of signatures to qualify for the ballot, but those signatures can come from any part of the state.
The preliminary injunction comes at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska and Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana (NMM). The groups filed a lawsuit in May that argued the state’s multicounty signature distribution requirement unconstitutionally violated the principle of one person, one vote because voters in high population counties had significantly less power than voters in less populous counties in affecting whether or not their county could meet the requirement.
Today’s decision signals that the organizations are likely to succeed in litigating their claim that the requirement violates the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, noting “The State of Nebraska is absolutely free to require a showing of statewide support for a ballot initiative — but it may not do so based on units of dramatically differing population, resulting in discrimination among voters.”
Nebraska State Senator Anna Wishart, campaign co-chair for NMM, said this initial victory will energize statewide collection efforts.
“This is a big win for all the Nebraskans fighting for years to legalize medical cannabis. This decision will give us new momentum as we work to collect signatures in all 93 counties in Nebraska. I just got back from Logan, Custer, Garfield, and Hamilton counties this weekend and plan on traveling west again next weekend. Nebraskans across the state support this issue because they know a loved one, friend or neighbor who is sick and would benefit from having access to medical cannabis. They deserve a vote in November.”
Nebraska State Senator Adam Morfeld, campaign co-chair of NMM, said the decision is encouraging.
“This is an important development for the medical cannabis campaign, but it’s also so much more. The right to petition our state government for change is sacred — it’s fundamental to good governance. Today’s court order will help protect Nebraskans’ political power in this critical stretch ahead of a final decision, and it suggests we’re doing what we need to do to win this lawsuit and permanently end Nebraska’s unconstitutional multicounty signature distribution requirement.”
Crista Eggers, plaintiff and statewide campaign coordinator for NMM, called the judge’s order a relief.
“There is statewide support for legalizing medical cannabis, but up until today we were at risk of being kept off the ballot if we came just one county short of the multicounty requirement. Under this preliminary injunction, everyone’s signature now has equal weight, and that’s the way it should be. As this case continues, we’ll keep working to generate support across the state.”
Jane Seu, an ACLU of Nebraska attorney, said today’s order will help protect direct democracy in Nebraska.
“Whether you live in Hall County, Sarpy County, Lancaster County, or Scotts Bluff County, your signature on a petition ought to have just as much power as a signature in some of our state’s least populated counties. We’re proud of our progress in safeguarding Nebraskans’ rights to petition our government for change and we believe we are on track to earn a permanent victory in this case. The bottom line is that Nebraskans have equal rights to constitutional processes.”
Litigation will continue as the groups seek a judicial decision declaring the multicounty signature distribution requirement unconstitutional and a permanent injunction overturning the provision.
Today’s order comes more than 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court determined a similar Illinois multicounty distribution requirement for ballot qualification violated residents’ rights. Courts have struck down these requirements in other states, including Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. A Federal District Court Judge ruled Nebraska’s requirement was unconstitutional in 2014, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit later overturned the decision on a procedural matter without ruling on the merits of the case.
NMM continues to collect signatures for two complementary petitions in communities across the state. The campaign has collected more than 80,000 signatures total and needs roughly 87,000 signatures per petition by July 7 to qualify for the ballot. To follow the progress of the campaign, go to: nebraskamarijuana.org.