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With Secretary of State John Gale's stipulated agreement, U.S. District Judge John Gerrard on Thursday ruled a new state election law sharply limiting an independent candidate's access to Nebraska's statewide ballot is unconstitutional.

The order wiped out a 2016 law that raised the number of signatures required to win a place on the ballot from 4,000 to about 121,000, or 10 percent of the number of Nebraska's registered voters.

That figure effectively blocked the pathway for independent candidates because of the cumbersome and expensive challenge of acquiring that number of signatures.

Gale, with the counsel of Attorney General Doug Peterson, decided to settle the case by agreeing the new requirement "exceeds the signature requirements permissible under the First Amendment," Gerrard noted in his order.  

A lawsuit challenging the new law was filed by the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Nebraska, along with the Friedman Law Offices, which represented Kent Bernbeck of Elkhorn. Bernbeck is seeking access to the general election ballot as an independent candidate for state treasurer.

"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 Bernbeck's attorney, Laughlin McDonald. 

"This is an important victory for voting rights that strengthens our democracy," said Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU of Nebraska.

"The swift, successful settlement of this case reinforces Nebraska's long and proud tradition of ensuring fair elections and providing a level playing field for all candidates," she said. 

Conrad praised "the reasonableness of state leaders to immediately restore ballot access for independent candidates to ensure Nebraska voters have real choices."

The high signature threshold established by the 2016 law was a barrier to Sen. Bob Krist's original consideration of an independent candidacy for governor in the November general election. 

Krist, an Omaha state senator, changed his voter registration from Republican to nonpartisan and subsequently to Democratic when he decided to file as a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in the May primary election. 

Krist won the Democratic nomination and will oppose Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts in the general election. 

"This law was a slap in the face to 21 percent of registered Nebraska voters who are nonpartisans," Krist said, and it was signed by "the most partisan governor in Nebraska history to silence independent voices."

In response, the Ricketts campaign said "Krist is being dishonest" because he voted for the change that was included in an omnibus elections bill that was approved by the Legislature without a single opposing vote.

Krist "changed his position to fit his ambition," the Ricketts campaign stated.

Sen. John Murante of Gretna, who spearheaded the change in the petition signature requirement as part of a package of election law revisions, had argued the increased number more closely matched the number of votes that statewide party nominees need to win to gain access to the general election ballot. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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