Nebraska and Oklahoma Voters Support the Death Penalty

Not quite a year after Nebraska legislators repealed their death penalty, voters brought it back last month, while Nebraska residents voted to enshrine their death penalty statute in the state constitution.

“I am undaunted and undeterred. I am not disheartened or discouraged,” says Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers. He is referring to the vote on November 8 that saw Nebraska voters restoring the death penalty, nullifying the repeal bill Chambers successfully ushered through the legislature last year. (DPF profiled Chambers in the Focus in July 2015.)

The vote was decisive, fueled, according to the Omaha World-Herald, by voters from the state’s rural counties, which voted by “margins as large as four to one.”

This came as no surprise to Chambers. “I know how backward and hidebound Nebraska people are,” he said. “This was not unexpected.”

The result was a personal as well as political victory for Republican Governor Pete Ricketts, whose veto of Chambers’ bill last year was overridden by the Republican-majority legislature. Ricketts and his family personally helped finance the petition drive that put the measure on the ballot.

But, true to form, Chambers is not giving up. He has tried to abolish the death penalty in Nebraska for the past 45 years, succeeding once in 1979, only to have the bill vetoed by the governor, and again last year. Now, when the legislature reconvenes in January, he will introduce another repeal bill, even though he’s “sure I won’t have the votes” to get it passed this time. He says he has no choice but to try again. “It’s the warp and woof of my very nature,” he says. “I could not do otherwise.”

In Oklahoma, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to enshrine their death penalty law in the state constitution. State Question No. 776 had four provisions:

The Legislature is expressly empowered to designate any method of execution not prohibited by the United States Constitution.

Death sentences shall not be reduced because a method of execution is ruled to be invalid.

When an execution method is declared invalid, the death penalty imposed shall remain in force until it can be carried out using any valid execution method, and

The imposition of a death penalty under Oklahoma law—as distinguished from a method of execution—shall not be deemed to be or constitute the infliction of cruel or unusual punishment under Oklahoma’s Constitution, nor to contravene any provision of the Oklahoma Constitution.

The referendum passed by an almost two-to-one margin, 66 – 34 percent. Sponsors say its passage means the state Supreme Court can’t find that it’s unconstitutional, and legislators will never be able to do what Nebraska’s legislature did — repeal it.

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