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Editorial, 5/26: Initiative rules need to reflect new demographics

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Petition organizers, 2.20

LINCOLN, NEB. - 02/20/2022 - Lizzie Turner a petitioner to increase the minimum wage in Nebraska waits outside the Pinnacle Bank Arena to ask for signatures. Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. JAIDEN TRIPI, Journal Star

For a ballot measure to be put before voters, organizers must gather signatures of 5% of the voters in 38 of the state's 93 counties.

Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana and ACLU of Nebraska think that requirement robs voters in the state's most populous counties of an equal voice, and they've sued the state.

A lawsuit is their best and fastest tool right now. They have a July 7 deadline to gather about 87,000 required signatures. But it's a tough slog getting required signatures in counties with low population density and few major gathering places -- in other words, in non-urban settings.

The lawsuit notes that now, "16 votes in Arthur County and 19 votes in Blaine County hold power equal to 6,464 votes in Sarpy County, 11,599 votes in Lancaster County, and 19,462 votes in Douglas County." 

The lawsuit will work it's way through the system, but the long-term solution is to fix the state's constitution, which, since 1912, has spelled out that initiatives have to be signed by 5% of voters in 40% of Nebraska's counties.

This provision, of course, aims to make sure that rural voters aren't robbed of their voices. But a lot has changed in Nebraska, demographically, in 110 years.

According to the 1910 Census, the state's population was almost 1.2 million people. Fewer than a quarter of them lived in "urban territory" -- classified as communities for 2,500 or more. That meant more than 75% of the state lived in rural areas.

Now, almost two-thirds of Nebraskans live in just six counties. Yes, 5% of the voters in those counties is more than 5% in less populous counties, but the lower population density makes it much harder to get those few signatures.

A century ago, a more uniform -- though smaller -- distribution of people made that two-fifths requirement a fair way to ensure a measure had broad enough support across the state to be worth the while of all voters to decide.

But with the population shift to cities, the state constitution needs amending. The signature distribution requirements should be based on system that is dependent not on geographic boundaries -- like counties -- but rather on actual and updated population, like congressional or legislative districts.

The initiative process is an essential piece of giving Nebraskans a voice. The recent lawsuit highlights a problem, and it need immediate resolution, but for the good of the system, an amendment to the state constitution is needed to bring the initiative process into the 21st century. 

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