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Petitions to place issues on ballots, reverse decisions and laws and recall elected officials represent the power of people to have their voices heard and will reflected in state and local laws and government.

That’s a particularly important right in Nebraska, where, with our unique unicameral legislature, the petition initiatives stand in as the “second house,” allowing the people to in some cases, like the abolition of the death penalty, reverse a legislative decision and, in others, like Medicaid expansion and casino gambling, force the state to enact policies that the Legislature and governor have rejected.\

Too often, however, the power of the people is being short circuited as petitions are rejected by the Secretary of State in statewide campaigns or locally, election commissioners or county clerks and, in some cases, the Nebraska Supreme Court for reasons other than failing to obtain enough qualified signatures.

The 2020 petition drive to legalize medical marijuana, for example, gathered nearly 200,000 signatures. But the Supreme Court barred the measure from going before the voters, ruling that the language violated the state’s single subject rule.

This year, the medical marijuana drive again gathered enough signatures, but ran afoul of that petitions to have signatures of 5% of registered voters in 38 of the state’s 93 counties to get on the ballot. That case remains tied up in federal court, with circulators challenging the constitutionality of the county-by-county requirements.

Most recently, Lancaster County Election Commissioner Dave Shively determined that petitions to “Let Lincoln Vote” on a proposed city fairness ordinance could not be verified because they did not include a statement indicating whether petition circulators were paid or volunteer, as required by state law.

Each rejection, including those of other campaigns who have had their petitions nullified, thwart the will of the voters through bureaucratic rules and regulations based on state laws that are, it seems, designed to make the petition process as difficult as possible and preserve the power of the Legislature and local governments.

There are, however, solutions to end most rejections for reasons other than failing to attain enough signatures.

The simplest of those would set up a process under which petitions are submitted to either the Secretary of State or local election officials for review before they are circulated.

Such reviews could then pinpoint problems with the petition language – e.g. the two subjects and the lack of the statement about paid or volunteer circulators — and allow organizers to craft a petition that would be approved when submitted for signature verification.

As for the county-by-county requirement, state law could be changed to alter the signature requirements, either by simply setting a percentage needed for the entire state, which would be ideal, or by broadening the areas counted for signatures, for example, by requiring a percentage of signatures by Congressional District rather than county.

Either would alter the current undemocratic inequality that gives a single voter in Arthur County the same ability to qualify an issue for the ballot as 1,216 signatories in Douglas County.

Together those changes, which would require legislative and local government action and funding, would fix many of the petition process problems and, in doing so, restore and preserve the power of the people that is a key element in our state and local democracy.

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