Lawsuit filed to change Nebraska petition laws -
Published Wednesday, July 31, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 2:38 am
Lawsuit filed to change Nebraska petition laws

LINCOLN — A veteran of multiple petition drives and lawsuits is taking on the state's petition law once again.

Kent Bernbeck of Omaha filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday challenging two petition requirements as violations of his constitutional rights.

The first is a provision in the Nebraska Constitution requiring a geographic distribution of petition signers.

To make the ballot, an initiative petition must have signatures from at least 5 percent of voters in at least two-fifths, or 38, of Nebraska's 93 counties.

The requirement is in addition to constitutional provisions governing the total number of signatures that must be collected.

The second is a 2008 state law banning payment of petition circulators by the signature.

Bernbeck claims, in the lawsuit (PDF), that the two requirements have prevented him from getting petitions on the ballot. Both increase the time and cost of exercising his rights, he said.

Bernbeck's attorney, David Domina of Norfolk, said Bernbeck filed the suit to protect rights for all Nebraskans.

“He is bringing this challenge to guarantee all Nebraskans can participate in this core democratic process,” Domina said, “a process so important that the founders of our nation called out the right as fundamental and to be preserved without intrusion.”

The lawsuit marks the second time Bernbeck has challenged the per-signature payment ban, but his first time to challenge the geographic distribution requirements for signatures.

Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale, who was named as a defendant, said he could not comment on the lawsuit.

“The area of initiative petitions is quite subject to litigation, so there are regularly new lawsuits and new decisions across the country,” he said. “We have had our share, and this is just the most recent one.”

In the lawsuit, he argues that the distribution requirement dilutes the voices and votes of people living in Nebraska's most populous counties.

He notes that the five counties nearest to his home — Douglas, Sarpy, Dodge, Saunders and Washington — contain 41.56 percent of the state population.

Meanwhile, the 64 least populated counties combined have fewer people than Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

Three years ago, Bernbeck was part of another lawsuit challenging the per-signature payment ban, as well as restrictions on who could circulate petitions.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon threw out a restriction on out-of-state circulators but upheld the per-signature payment ban and age limits on circulators. Bataillon said the payment ban had been upheld in three federal appeals courts.

In the current lawsuit, Bernbeck said the ban is similar to a Colorado law that was recently thrown out in federal court.

He said the requirement kept him from succeeding last year with a petition drive in Denton, a Lancaster County village. He used a circulator who was paid per signature.

Denton Village Clerk Charlotte TeBrink refused to accept the petition and a Lancaster County court upheld her decision. The court ruled the three signatures from the paid circulator were invalid and the 13 remaining signatures were not enough to qualify the petition for the ballot.

The suit also named TeBrink as a defendant.

The lawsuit claimed that paying circulators by the hour increases costs because circulators do not have enough incentive to produce.

Backers of the per-signature payment ban said it was needed to prevent problems seen in past state petition drives.

Bernbeck argues in his suit that the number of petitions making the ballot has dropped in states that enacted per-signature payment bans.

Bernbeck has had mixed success with past petition law challenges. He was part of a 1996 lawsuit that overturned several circulator restrictions.

Contact the writer: Martha Stoddard    |   402-473-9583    |  

Martha covers the Nebraska Legislature, the governor, state agencies, and health, education and budget issues out of our Lincoln bureau.

Read more related stories
No injuries after fire at midtown's old Mercer Mansion
19-year-old arrested in connection with March shooting
17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
Keystone XL pipeline backers blast 'political expediency' as foes hail ruling to delay decision
29-year-old Omahan arrested for 22nd time in Lincoln
Nebraska senators to study tax issues over break
Portion of Saddle Creek Road closed after water main break
Teenager arrested after woman's purse is snatched outside Omaha store
Police identify 21-year-old shot in ankle near 30th, W Streets
Cult murderer's death row appeal denied, but execution in limbo
Beau McCoy strikes Obama doll in TV ad; Democrats are not happy
Police: Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs
Interstate construction to cause lane shifts, closings in Omaha area
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Police seek public's help in finding an armed man
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
< >
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »