LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) A law that made it more difficult for Nebraska’s nonpartisan candidates to seek higher office was overturned and ruled unconstitutional Thursday as part of an agreement with the secretary of state.
Secretary of State John Gale settled a lawsuit that was brought by Omaha businessman Kent Bernbeck and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. As part of the agreement, a federal judge declared the law unconstitutional and ordered Gale not to enforce it.
The 2016 law increased the number of signatures candidates need to collect to gain ballot access from 4,000 to over 120,000, which is 10 percent of registered voters. The law made Nebraska’s signature requirement one of the highest in the nation. Thirty-seven states require fewer than 10,000 signatures for candidates to gain ballot access.
Bernebeck launched an independent bid for state treasurer partially to bring attention to the restrictions on nonpartisan candidates. He said the 3,000 percent increase was unconstitutional because it prevented nonpartisan candidates from running and took options away from voters.
To qualify for the November election, Bernbeck will now need to collect 4,000 signatures. He declined to comment on if he has begun the process. If Bernbeck’s name appears on the ballot, he will challenge the Republican-backed state Sen. John Murante of Gretna, who introduced the law. Murante will otherwise be unopposed.
“I got the law overturned and I exposed a politician who was maybe doing this for impure motives,” Bernbeck said. “At this point it’s up to the people of Nebraska to decide if they support my candidacy.”
Bernbeck filed the lawsuit at the end of May and said he did not expect the law to be repealed so quickly.
Murante said he respects the opinions of the secretary of state and court, but argued the Legislature “passed the measure with bipartisan support and in a transparent fashion.”
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha attempted to challenge the law earlier this year when he planned to run for governor as an independent candidate. He initially planned to start his own party to avoid the high signature requirement, but instead joined the Democratic Party to launch his campaign. Krist dropped his lawsuit after switching his party affiliation.
“This law was a slap in the face to 21 percent of registered Nebraska voters who are non-partisans,” he said in a statement Thursday.