ACLU Challenges Nebraska Petition Laws That Keep Independent Candidates Off Ballot

Affiliate: ACLU of Nebraska
December 16, 2009 2:20 pm

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Onerous Signature Requirements Violate Right To Political Speech

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OMAHA, NE – Burdensome petition signature requirements unlawfully keep independent candidates and ballot initiatives off the Nebraska ballot, according to a lawsuit filed today by the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU Nebraska. The lawsuit charges that the challenged signature requirements limit political speech, violating Nebraska candidates’ and voters’ free speech, equal protection and due process rights.

“Nebraska’s onerous signature requirements make it nearly impossible for independent candidates to participate in the electoral process and for initiative campaigns to get measures on the ballot,” said Bryan Sells, an attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “The requirements serve no real purpose except to protect the existing parties from competition from candidates with diverse political perspectives and to limit the options of Nebraska voters.”

In 2007 and 2008, the Nebraska legislature enacted statutes that have made it much more difficult for independent candidates and voter-driven ballot initiatives to get on the Nebraska ballot. The statutes increased the number of petition signatures required for independent candidates to get on the ballot from 2,000 signatures to 4,000 – with at least 50 of those signatures coming from at least one-third of Nebraska’s counties. The statutes also require all petition circulators to be residents of Nebraska and that “Scarlet Letter” language be added to all petitions in large red type, indicating whether the petition gatherers are paid or volunteer.

“It’s hard not to see the restrictions as a deliberate effort on the part of legislators to keep independent candidates and grassroots initiatives off the ballot,” said Amy Miller, an attorney with ACLU Nebraska. “Reducing the pool of petition circulators while doubling the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot is meant to keep independent candidates from disseminating their political views. And lacking the organizational support of a party, many independent candidates and initiative campaigns need to use paid circulators to gather signatures, but the ‘Scarlet Letter’ language dissuades many voters from signing petitions.”

The lawsuit, Citizens in Charge Foundation, Inc., et al. v. Secretary of State of Nebraska John A. Gale, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska on behalf of a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and expanding the ballot initiative and referendum process, a Nebraska voter who has gathered petition signatures for ballot initiatives in Nebraska, and an individual aspirant to political office, who says the requirements make it impossible for him to gather enough signatures to appear on the Nebraska ballot as an independent candidate.

“These laws have served to muffle Nebraskans’ voices for far too long,” said Paul Jacob, President of Citizens in Charge, the non-profit organization represented by the ACLU in the case. “We are hopeful that the court will open up Nebraska’s ballot initiative process and uphold people’s right to petition their government.”

Attorneys on this case are Sells and Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project and Miller of ACLU Nebraska.

A copy of today’s legal complaint is available at:

More information about the ACLU Voting Rights Project is available at:

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