Volunteers with Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana sort through boxes of petitions submitted just before a deadline last month to submit signatures to qualify for the November ballot, an effort that fell short. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
Editor’s note: This report has been updated to reflect news at the 5 p.m. Thursday deadline for submitting signatures on initiative petition drives.
LINCOLN — Two well-funded initiative petition drives appear to be headed for a vote in November, while a third — to legalize medical cannabis — looks iffy to gain a place on the ballot.
“We’ll know in the next couple of months if we qualify or not,” said State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, who co-chaired the signature drive conducted by Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana.
Wishart said the predominantly volunteer effort submitted 93,000 signatures for one of its two petitions, and 91,000 for the other. About 87,000 valid signatures of registered voters are needed to qualify for the ballot.
Election officials say that, typically, between 10% and 15% of signatures submitted for such petition drives are deemed invalid after checking. So that makes it uncertain if the marijuana petition drive will qualify.
“It’s going to be a photo finish,” said Omaha Sen. Wendy DeBoer, who was among those submitting petitions Thursday afternoon at the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office in downtown Lincoln.
It was a mad scramble for the medical marijuana group just prior to the deadline as volunteers dug through boxfuls of petitions, which were scattered on the floor outside the election office, to divide them by county and by the two petitions. They crossed their fingers that some petitions from rural Nebraska would also arrive because they must provide a sufficient number of signatures in 38 of the state’s 93 counties.
“This is what a grassroots campaign is,” said Crista Eggers of Omaha, the campaign coordinator for Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana.
The cannabis group gathered more than enough signatures in 2020 to qualify for the ballot. But their issue was tossed off the ballot by the Nebraska Supreme Court, which ruled the initiative violated the state’s “single subject” rule.
This year, after losing major donors, the medical marijuana effort had to rely primarily on volunteers to circulate its petitions.
Others had $1 million
It spent about $200,000, according to Eggers. Meanwhile, the two initiatives that appear to have qualified for the ballot each had war chests of over $1 million.
Citizens for Voter ID, whose leaders said they submitted about 172,000 signatures on Thursday, reported raising $1.7 million to collect signatures and campaign for the idea. That included a $1.5 million donation from Marlene Ricketts, the mother of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Raise the Wage Nebraska leaders said they submitted 160,000 signatures to qualify their issue — to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026. That group reported raising about $1.3 million so far.
“We weren’t one of the rich campaigns,” Wishart said. That, she said, included being able to afford a signature verification system that gives an accurate count of how many valid signatures have been submitted.
Some signatures uncounted
That means that the signatures submitted Thursday by the Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana are “raw,” Wishart said, and that several hundred signatures may not have been counted since they came in so late.
The voter ID initiative, because it proposes to change the Nebraska Constitution, must provide about 124,000 valid signatures of registered voters in Nebraska to qualify for the ballot. The two other initiatives, because they propose state law changes, only need about 87,000.
Thursday was the deadline for submitting signatures for the fall ballot.
Several other proposed ballot initiatives did not turn in signatures. Those include initiatives to toss out Nebraska’s motorcycle helmet law, to allow concealed weapons to be carried without a license and training and to do away with the Nebraska Department of Education and the Nebraska Board of Education.
One petition circulator for the medical marijuana issue, Samantha Chavez of Omaha, said she collected 136 signatures on Thursday as part of a last-minute push.
Several signers, she said, told stories of friends and relatives who suffered from cancer or seizures who could be helped by medical cannabis.
“A lot of people understand this is something people need,” Chavez said.
Opponents of legalizing medical marijuana, who include Gov. Ricketts, have maintained that it has not been proven to work or cleared by the Federal Drug Administration and that it could lead to permitting recreational use of cannabis, which he says endangers youths.
35 states now have voter ID
State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar, a leader in the voter ID initiative, said requiring someone to provide identification at a polling place is a “common sense” requirement that is supported by both Republicans, like herself, and Democrats.
She said that Citizens for Voter ID stands ready to defend its initiative against any lawsuits, calling them “lawsuits to nowhere.”
Thirty-five states now have voter ID requirements, according to Slama.
Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said Thursday that adding “barriers to voting is un-American.”
“The good news is even if this passes at the ballot box, the (State) Legislature will determine which IDs will be accepted,” Kleeb said, saying she hopes it is a “broad list” of IDs.
Advocates for raising the minimum wage estimated Thursday that about 150,000 Nebraskans would benefit from raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That is about 20% of the state’s workforce, they said.
$9 an hour is current minimum
Nebraska’s minimum wage was last increased when voters approved
another ballot initiative in 2014. It ultimately increased the wage to the current $9 an hour.
Advocates maintain that $9 an hour is too low to sustain a household and that raising the wage is “the right thing to do” amid rising costs of housing, food and fuel.
“Fair wages are the single best way to show employees that they are valued,” said Alma Cerretta, the owner of Mana Games and Cafe in Lincoln, at a press conference Thursday.
Opponents maintain that raising the minimum wage results in job losses and makes companies less competitive with states that don’t have higher minimum wages.
Ricketts said Thursday that raising the minimum wage is not a “one size fits all” proposition. It may cost jobs and close shops in rural areas of the state, he said.
Concerns unfoundedKate Wolfe, campaign manager for Raise the Wage Nebraska, said many of the complaints about raising the minimum wage were raised in 2014 and turned out to be false.
Cindy Meyer of Omaha, a mother of two, said raising the minimum wage would reduce the “stress” of having to work two to three jobs and balancing that with spending time with her kids and husband.
“If everyone was earning at least $15 per hour, we would be able to take better care of ourselves and our families and contribute more to the community,” Meyer said.
D.C. group largest donor
The largest contributor to Raise the Wage Nebraska came from a Washington, D.C.-based, progressive group called the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which has been described as a “dark money” organization. It gave $634,490.
Wolfe, when asked, did not identify the source of that group’s funding. Another Washington-based group, the Fairness Project, gave nearly $252,400.
Nebraska Appleseed provided nearly $200,000 for the initiative. Other Nebraska contributors included the ACLU of Nebraska, Civic Engagement Nebraska, the Center for Rural Affairs and the YWCA of Lincoln.
Among those Slama thanked for helping with the voter ID initiative was Roscoe Ricketts, the governor’s son, who is working with Axiom Strategies, a Kansas City-based, Republican election consulting firm.
The petition signatures will now be examined by the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office and county election commissioners to see determine how many are valid. The November ballot must be finalized by Sept. 16.
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