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Nebraska voters reinstate the death penalty in landslide vote

LINCOLN--Nebraska voters have made up their minds, and they want the death penalty back.

After nearly two years of campaigning for what has turned out to be the most controversial issue in the Nebraska election, voters in the state decided to repeal Legislative Bill 286 (LB 286) and reinstate the death penalty as the ultimate form of punishment, in what turned out to be a landslide decision.

The "repeal" side received 59.6 percent of the vote, compared to just 40.4 percent for the "retain" side.

The decision is a big win for Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who invested a large amount of money and time into getting Referendum 426 on the ballot in order to repeal the death penalty decision that outlawed the practice last year.

Bob Evnen, co-founder of the group Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which led the push to repeal LB 286, said the victory was expected.

"From the time in 2015 when the unicameral repealed the death penalty, there were a number of us who thought a strong majority, a substantial majority of Nebraskans were for the death penalty and believed that it ought to be on the books," Evnen said.

In May 2015, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, getting much-needed help from Republican senators within the officially nonpartisan Legislature, was finally successful in repealing the death penalty by a vote of 30-19 after decades of unsuccessful attempts.

Chambers and many others in favor of eliminating the death penalty have argued was ineffective, costly and perhaps most importantly, hasn't been used in nearly two decades. He has spent the bulk of his career in government working on abolishing the death penalty in the state of Nebraska, which he says is rife with issues.

After the Legislature repealed the death penalty in LB286, Ricketts promptly vetoed the bill. But within a few days the Legislature moved to override Ricketts' veto. Not long thereafter, a pro-death penalty group called Nebraskans for the Death Penalty and Ricketts launched a petition to put the issue on the ballot and give Nebraskans the opportunity to decide. They gathered more than 166,000 signatures.

"After the unicameral repealed we started a petition for a referendum," Evnen said, reiterating his earlier point. "We did that based on our belief that a substantial majority of Nebraskans believed that the death penalty ought to be utilized."

The referendum, known as the Nebraska Death Penalty Repeal Veto Referendum, or Referendum 426, was tinged with somewhat confusing language, in that people aren't voting whether to retain or repeal the death penalty itself, but rather the law that eliminated the death penalty in 2015.

The issue had split the state, both within the state's government and the populace. But the race didn't turn out to be as close as some expected. While the governor favored keeping the death penalty on the books, the unicameral wanted to eliminate capital punishment and use life without parole in its place.

One of the main issues for opponents of the death penalty is the drug protocol, which has been widely criticized as ineffective. Currently there are no drugs to carry out the executions. But Evnen said that with cooperation this issue too can be resolved.

"The hope is now that the unicameral will cooperate with the executive branch and work to establish a successful protocol," Evnen said. "Other states do it; we can do it too."

Chambers vowed in an interview with the Nebraska News Service in October to make death penalty a key issue once again his next term.

The "repeal" side had garnered support from various law enforcement agencies across the state, as well as Ricketts himself, who had injected $300,000 into the campaign, and several other groups, while the "retain" side was supported by a number of politicians and organizations as well, including the ACLU of Nebraska, the Lincoln Journal Star and others.

It's unclear if and when Nebraska will be able to start executing the 10 men serving on death row.

Contact Vincent Peña at