Voter ID, minimum wage and medical marijuana campaigns submit petition signatures | Politics

Katie R. Ochoa

LINCOLN — Nebraska voters appear on track to decide at least two major issues and maybe three in the November general election.

Organizers of petition drives to increase the minimum wage and require voters to show photo ID turned in substantially more signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office on Thursday than needed to qualify for the ballot.

For a campaign to legalize medical marijuana, though, it’s going to be a close call. State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, a co-sponsor, said Thursday afternoon on Twitter that the campaign had gathered over 184,000 total signatures between its two petitions. The group put forward the two petitions, rather than one, in an effort to avoid a setback that kept the issue off the ballot in 2020.

With each petition needing about 87,000 valid signatures to make it onto the ballot, the total of 184,000 doesn’t leave much of a cushion as state and local officials begin to verify the signatures — a process that always results in some being tossed out.

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Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, the other co-sponsor, expressed optimism Thursday on Twitter.

“Normally with well funded campaigns you have around a 20 percent buffer, but since ours was largely volunteer and small donor driven our buffer rate is a lot lower,” Morfeld said.

Raise the Wage Nebraska submitted petitions Thursday morning containing around 160,000 signatures from all 93 Nebraska counties, nearly twice as many as needed. The minimum wage proposal also needed about 87,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Later in the day, Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar with Citizens for Voter ID announced that the group’s petition had garnered over 172,000 signatures from at least 58 counties. As a constitutional amendment, the petition needs about 124,000 signatures validated by the Secretary of State’s Office to get on the November ballot.

If passed by voters, the minimum wage petition would raise the state’s minimum wage in four annual steps. It would increase from the current $9 per hour to $10.50 per hour on Jan. 1, eventually reaching $15 per hour by 2026. The measure also would provide for annual cost of living increases, starting in 2027.

Nancy Williams, president and CEO of No More Empty Pots and a sponsor of the petition, said the proposed law would benefit nearly 150,000 Nebraska workers. She said they are people who are struggling to get by, especially with inflation.

“No one working full time should struggle to make ends meet,” she said. “The cost of groceries, housing and basics have gone up for years … but the minimum wage just hasn’t kept up.”

Cindy Meyer, a married mother of two elementary-aged children, is one such worker. She said she has worked for 19 years in various education, child care, retail and service industry jobs. All paid minimum wage or barely above it. At times, she said, she had to work multiple jobs to get by.

“If everyone was earning at least $15 an hour, we would be able to take better care of ourselves, better care of our families and contribute more to our communities,” she said.

At a Thursday press conference, Gov. Pete Ricketts criticized the effort, arguing that Nebraska’s minimum wage should be controlled by the market. He said a livable wage isn’t a “one size fits all” system, and that a livable wage looks different in rural counties than in Omaha or Lincoln.

The voter ID petition, meanwhile, would require future Nebraska voters to provide a valid photo ID before casting their ballot. Slama said 35 states already require this, and she described the effort as a “common sense” measure that has bipartisan support, although all of the main backers of the petition are Republicans.

Slama thanked Ricketts for his support of the campaign, particularly for attending several town halls to spread word about the initiative. Ricketts has openly supported the voter ID effort, and his mother, Marlene Ricketts, was the campaign’s primary financial backer, donating more than $1.8 million to the group.

Although the campaign gathered nearly 50,000 signatures more than the requirement, recent controversy surrounding the petitioners leaves questions as to how many will be accepted by the Secretary of State’s Office.

The campaign is currently under investigation by the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office after complaints arose accusing voter ID petitioners of falsely claiming to be state employees. Slama did not have an update on the investigation as of Thursday.

Separate complaints were also filed against the campaign alleging that petitioners were being misleading about the initiative’s intent. There is not an investigation into these complaints, However, Slama mentioned that people have suggested online that there may be a lawsuit filed to challenge the campaign.

Slama, who previously described these complaints as a “Democrat-led hit job,” said she is prepared to fight a lawsuit against the campaign if one comes up.

“If whatever party wants to waste their resources in a lawsuit to nowhere, I’m more than happy to take them on,” Slama said.

Civic Nebraska, which has opposed the voter ID campaign, did not mention whether the organization would pursue a lawsuit. However, the group said in a statement Thursday that it is “preparing for the next phase of opposition” against the initiative.

“For thousands of Nebraska voters, voter ID would be a hindrance and impediment to freely cast a ballot,” Civic Nebraska said in the statement.

The Secretary of State’s Office will do an initial review of the petitions, then distribute them to county election offices to have the signatures checked against voter registration records. Counties have 40 days to complete the signature verification but can request 10 more days. Petitions are checked in the order they are submitted.

The process must be completed in time for the Secretary of State to certify the November ballot on Sept. 16. Court challenges to the petition proposals or any part of the process are possible.

In 2020, a petition seeking to legalize medical marijuana was kept off the ballot after a lawsuit was filed and the Nebraska Supreme Court determined the petition contained more than one subject. To avoid the same fate, the medical marijuana group put forward two initiatives this year. The first aims to establish protections for doctors and patients, while the second seeks to create protections for private entities that produce and supply marijuana for medical purposes.

In more recent news, a lawsuit is pending over the constitutionality of Nebraska’s requirement for petitions to get valid signatures from 5% of registered voters in two-fifths, or 38, of the state’s 93 counties. ACLU of Nebraska filed the suit on behalf of Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana. It’s unclear whether the case will be decided before the Sept. 16 deadline.

Last month, a federal district judge issued an injunction to stop the state from enforcing that requirement. But a federal appeals court on Wednesday allowed state officials to proceed with enforcing it.

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