Lancaster County Election Commissioner Dave Shively on Tuesday determined initiative petitions to put the city’s so-called fairness ordinance on the November ballot were invalid, delivering what could be a fatal setback to a grassroots group hoping to put it to the voters.
The group, Let Lincoln Vote, started the ballot initiative in June, after the City Council rescinded an ordinance it had initially passed in February to broadly update city code, including extending protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
He returned the two boxes of signatures to the city clerk Tuesday, one day after Let Lincoln Vote organizers turned them in.
“That would mean their work really was for naught because they didn’t follow state law,” Shively said.
But Kay Siebler, who helped lead the grassroots effort that included more than 100 volunteers, said they have a plan they hope will keep the petition effort moving forward, but said she couldn't yet elaborate.
“What I can say is we’re not giving up,” she said. “We’re exploring different options, but we think we have a plan. We’re not in despair.”
State law says each sheet of a petition must say whether it is being circulated by a paid or volunteer circulator “upon its face and in plain view of persons who sign the petition a statement in letters not smaller than 16-point type in red print on the petition.”
This is the latest turn of events in the latest attempt to expand protections in Lincoln to include sexual orientation and gender identity, which began in February when the City Council passed a broad update to Title 11, the portion of city code dealing with equity in housing, public accommodation and employment.
While the flashpoint has been expanding protections to LGBTQ individuals — and the focus of opponents led by the Nebraska Family Alliance — the ordinance passed by the council, and the one put forward as part of the ballot initiative, are significantly broader.
Both would update language and reorganize the section to clarify the process of the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights, add active military veterans as a protected class and update and strengthen disability protections.
After the council passed the ordinance in February, opponents launched a successful referendum, and the council had to decide whether to rescind the ordinance or put the question to voters.
Some transgender advocates warned early on that they would be targeted by opponents and that supporters weren’t adequately prepared to launch a campaign to counteract the well-organized efforts by opponents should the issue go to a public vote. Those arguments took on more momentum after a transgender advocate died by suicide.
And they ultimately succeeded in convincing the council, by a narrow vote, to rescind the ordinance it had just passed.
That upset other supporters — some who had worked for decades to expand such protections — and they decided to launch the ballot initiative.
The time frame — even had the petition signatures been verified — was tight to get the question on the November ballot. Once the signatures are verified, they go back to the city clerk, and the City Council must pass a resolution to put the issue on the ballot. To get on the ballot, that language had get to the election commissioner by Sept. 1.
The initiative could also be considered for the city election ballot next spring.
Petition circulator Luann Larsen (left) explains a petition for the Let Lincoln Vote initiative Saturday during the weekly Haymarket Farmers Market. Organizers turned in their petitions Monday, but they were ruled invalid.