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OMAHA -- The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the state of Nebraska over the its petition signature requirements for ballot initiatives and independent candidates.

The group is suing on behalf of two men and a nonprofit organization called Citizens in Charge Foundation Inc., which wants to expand the ballot initiative and referendum process. The men suing are Michael Groene of North Platte, a frequent petition signature gatherer for ballot initiatives, and Donald Sluti of Kearney, who has said the requirements make it impossible for him to gather enough signatures to appear on the Nebraska ballot as an independent candidate.

The ACLU said Wednesday that changes made in 2007 and 2008 to Nebraska law in are keeping independent candidates and ballot initiatives off the Nebraska ballot, violating protected political speech.

The changes increased the number of petition signatures required for independent candidates to get on the ballot from 2,000 signatures to 4,000 -- with at least 50 of those signatures coming from at least one-third, or 31, of Nebraska's 93 counties.

A change in 2008 requires all petition circulators to be electors of the state of Nebraska, meaning they must live in the state and be 18 years old by the time of the November election in the year they gather signatures.

That law "had the effect of imposing a residency requirement for petition circulators," the lawsuit reads.

Lastly, the lawsuit objects to Nebraska's "Scarlet Letter" law, which requires all petitions to bear in large, red type whether the petition gatherers are paid or volunteer.

Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale, whose office oversees state elections and who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, defended the state's requirements and said he has every confidence that the court will uphold them as constitutional.

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The law requiring signatures come from 31 counties is not an unusual one, Gale said, and he doesn't believe the law requiring petitions to state whether the petition gatherers are paid or volunteer is unreasonable.

He also defended the requirement that petition gatherers be residents of Nebraska.

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"It's not at all unreasonable to ask that the circulators will be assuming some of the burden of that constitutional change and that they be citizens of the state," Gale said.

But the ACLU said the requirements violate associational and free speech rights of those without major political party affiliations.

"It's hard not to see the restrictions as a deliberate effort on the part of legislators to keep independent candidates and grass roots initiatives off the ballot," said Amy Miller, an attorney with ACLU Nebraska. "Reducing the pool of petition circulators while doubling the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot is meant to keep independent candidates from disseminating their political views.

If successful, a federal judge would declare the requirements unconstitutional, said Laughlin McDonald, an attorney with the ACLU Voting Rights Project in Atlanta who worked on the lawsuit.

"The legislature would, of course, be free to enact something different, but it would also have to enact something that would be constitutionally permissible that didn't impose undue burden," McDonald said.

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