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Nebraska voters have many opportunities to participate in the process of developing policy and making laws. Although some may feel that their power to influence ends when they cast their ballot on election day, Nebraskans have multiple avenues for individuals and groups to provide input to the lawmaking process during the legislative session, as well as direct influence on laws through the Initiative and Referendum processes.
As the only Unicameral Legislature in the nation, the voters of Nebraska are frequently referred to as the Legislature’s “Second House”. In fact, this is more than just a catchphrase. While rules vary from state to state, Nebraska is unique in its public hearing process for proposed legislation. Every bill that is introduced is required to have a public hearing by the legislative committee to which it was referred. The hearings are open to all members of the public, who may attend, provide verbal testimony, or submit written remarks.
No other state provides the degree of open public access to the committee process during the legislative session. In contrast, most states have a complicated political process which determines whether or not a bill even receives a public hearing, and many allow only invited testimony.
Outside of the legislative session, Nebraska voters have two other options to directly create or repeal laws, the Initiative and Referendum. An Initiative allows voters to place language directly on the ballot for consideration by all voters of the state, bypassing the Legislature completely. The Referendum is a means by which voters can repeal a law passed by the Legislature. Not all states give voters these options. Of the 50 states, only 24 have the Initiative process, and only 24 states have the Referendum option. While many states have both, some have only one or the other. Of Nebraska’s neighboring states, neither Kansas or Iowa residents have either the Initiative or Referendum available.
The Initiative process has been in place in Nebraska since 1912. In order to become law, a proposed Initiative must first receive signatures of enough registered voters to be placed on the ballot. An Initiative aimed to amend Nebraska statute requires petition signatures of 7% of registered Nebraska voters. Constitutional Initiatives require 10% of the registered voters to sign the petition. Once certified for the ballot, Initiatives must receive a majority of affirmative votes, provided votes cast on the Initiative are at least 35% of the total votes cast in the election. Term Limits for Nebraska Senators is an example of a successful ballot initiative.
Voters can repeal a law passed by the Legislature through a direct ballot vote during a General Election. In order to be placed on the ballot for potential repeal, a successful petition process must be completed within 90 days of the passage of the law. Signatures of 5% of registered voters are required for the Referendum to be placed on the General Election ballot. Certified signatures of 10% of registered voters prevents the law from taking effect prior to the General Election vote. The successful Referendum on the repeal of the death penalty passed during the 2016 legislative session will appear on the the ballot this November.
Safeguards are put in place to ensure voters from across the state are represented in the petition process for both Initiative and Referendum. Successful petitions must submit signatures from at least 5% of the registered voters in 38 of the 93 counties in Nebraska. A rigorous screening and certification process of petition signatures reduces the possibility of fraud and ensures the integrity of these important processes for Nebraska voters.
I strongly encourage all Nebraskans to get involved in making policy. In addition to voting, Nebraska voters have greater opportunity to directly influence laws than in any other state in the nation. If you cannot make it to Lincoln to testify in person a public hearing, submit written testimony to the Committee. Circulate and sign petitions for Initiatives or Referendums that are important to you. Above all, take the time to understand issues that make it to the ballot and make sure to vote. Take advantage of every opportunity to have your voice heard.