Judge tosses Nebraska’s signature-gathering requirement for independent candidates

LINCOLN — A federal judge on Thursday tossed out Nebraska’s new signature requirements for independent candidates seeking statewide office.

The ruling opens the door for Kent Bernbeck, the man who sued over the requirements, to run against State Sen. John Murante, the man who pushed for the requirements.

Murante, of Gretna, is the Republican candidate for state treasurer. Bernbeck, of Elkhorn, hopes to get enough signatures to appear on the November ballot as an independent. He has until Sept. 4 to do so.

The court ruled after Secretary of State John Gale agreed with Bernbeck and the ACLU of Nebraska that a law passed in 2016 set the signature requirements unconstitutionally high.

The 2016 law required independent candidates to collect about 120,000 petition signatures — equal to 10 percent of the state’s registered voters — to get on the ballot.

Previous state law required candidates to gather only 4,000 signatures, including 750 from each of the state’s three congressional districts. That becomes the threshold again, now that the new law has been overturned.

Murante had championed the new law, calling it a matter of fairness. He argued earlier that major-party candidates may need 100,000 or more votes to advance in a contested primary election, so nonpartisan candidates should have to gather a similar number of signatures.

On Thursday, he said he respects the opinion of the secretary of state and the court.

He would not say if the 2016 law was a mistake and said any further changes to the signature requirements would have to be “a policy discussion for the next Legislature to have.”

“We are pleased that this resolution upholds the high ideals of a vibrant democracy, and we look forward to the return of a more reasonable threshold for independent candidates to be placed on the ballot,” said Laughlin McDonald, Bernbeck’s attorney.

The case was filed on Bernbeck’s behalf by the state ACLU chapter, the ACLU Voting Rights Project and Friedman Law Offices.

State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, now the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, had filed a lawsuit challenging the signature law in February, when he was contemplating an independent bid for governor. He dropped the suit after deciding to run as a Democrat.

On Thursday, he praised the court ruling and called the 2016 law a “slap in the face” to the 21 percent of Nebraska voters who are registered nonpartisan.

“This ruling reflects the ‘Nebraska Way’ — nonpartisan, independent thinking that has been our hallmark for generations,” he said.

Krist accused Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts of being behind the 2016 law to silence independent voters. But Murante said the governor had no role in pushing for the change.

Ricketts’ campaign spokesman, Matthew Trail, responded by accusing Krist of changing his position on the signature requirement. Krist voted for the 2016 change, which got little attention during debate and passed the Legislature without any opposing votes.

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