- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 11, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A ruling this week by a federal judge could make it easier for petition-drive organizers to place statewide initiatives on the ballot without traveling to remote parts of Nebraska.

U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Bataillon in Omaha struck down a state constitutional requirement that had forced petition circulators to visit at least 38 of Nebraska’s 93 counties and collect signatures from at least 5 percent of the registered voters in each. His ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by Kent Bernbeck, an Omaha businessman who has fought for years for looser petitioning rules.

Bernbeck argued that the requirement dramatically increases the time and travel costs to gather signatures and that it effectively made rural votes more valuable than urban votes. Attorneys pointed to sparsely populated Arthur County, where petition circulators would only have to gather 17 signatures to meet the voter threshold. In Douglas County, which encompasses Omaha, circulators would need 16,082 signatures to fulfill the same requirement.

Batallion agreed, writing that the “Nebraska Constitution does not yield equality among citizens, but instead gives more weight to the power of rural votes. This cannot withstand scrutiny under the equal protection and due process clauses of the United States Constitution.”

The lawsuit was filed against Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale, whose office defended the requirements and did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling Tuesday.

Petition circulators will still have to meet the constitutional requirement of gathering signatures from 7 percent of all registered voters if they want to change a state law and 10 percent if they want to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Bernbeck said he has spoken with lawmakers who are looking at possible changes to the petition process, which could come up for debate once the session begins in January.

The ruling wasn’t a complete victory for Bernbeck, who tried but failed to overturn a requirement that petition circulators be paid by the hour instead of the signature. Bernbeck has argued that petition circulators paid by the hour are harder to motivate; supporters of the rule counter that paying by the signature encourages fraud and voter harassment.

Lawmakers may consider new signature requirements when they convene next year, said Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus. One idea is to require a certain number of signatures from each of Nebraska’s three congressional districts, to ensure that voters outside of Omaha and Lincoln still have a voice in the process.

In addition, Schumacher he may introduce a bill next year that would allow petition circulators to gather signatures electronically.

Schumacher disputed the notion that looser petitioning rules would lead to a surge in ballot initiatives, as is often seen in California.

“Before these changes were made, Nebraskans didn’t make wild decisions through the petitioning process,” Schumacher said. “They used it in a conservative manner, and they only used it on issues where the establishment was being unreasonable.”

Schumacher pointed to the minimum wage ballot measure on the November ballot, which was rejected by lawmakers earlier this year. Supporters managed to get the issue on the ballot after raising more than $1.4 million for both signature-gathering and the campaign.

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