Will Nebraska ditch the death penalty? Voters may decide.

A group petitioning to keep capital punishment in Nebraska has gathered enough signatures to stop the penalty’s repeal from taking place.

Eric Gregory/The Journal-Star/AP
Death penalty supporters stand in front of boxes they say contain 166,692 petition signatures, enough to block the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska until voters decide the issue, during a news conference on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015 at the state capitol in Lincoln, Neb.

A group fighting to keep the death penalty in Nebraska is looking to give voters final word on the state’s capital punishment law.

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, endorsed by Governor Pete Ricketts and a number of state and local legislators and officials, said Wednesday that its members had collected 166,692 signatures that, if verified, would be more than enough to suspend the law’s repeal until the issue goes before voters in November 2016. Nebraska’s state legislature voted by a narrow margin to abolish the death penalty in May.

The announcement comes as states across the country wrestle with the idea of capital punishment in the face of procedural, financial, and moral concerns around execution. It also shows that even as public opinion shifts slowly in favor of abolition, proponents of ending the practice will not be coasting to victory, especially in conservative states.

“We have a right to vote on this very serious issue, and we should exercise that right through our constitutionally protected referendum process,” Bob Evnen, a Lincoln, Neb. attorney and founding member of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, wrote in a July op-ed for the Lincoln Journal Star. “The voters of our state have a right to decide this for themselves.”

While a majority of Americans are still in favor of capital punishment (56 to 38 percent for those convicted of murder), nationwide support for the penalty has declined over the last two decades, according to the Pew Research Center.

One factor driving the change is a recent surge in support from some Republicans who say that not only are the costs of enforcing the death penalty today no longer worth the benefits, but that the concept of capital punishment is contrary to conservative values.

“It's certainly a matter of conscience, at least in part, but it's also a matter of trying to be philosophically consistent,” Sen. Laure Ebke, (R) of Crete, Neb., told The Associated Press. “If government can’t be trusted to manage our health care ... then why should it be trusted to carry out the irrevocable sentence of death?”

Just three months after the Nebraska state legislature voted to repeal the penalty in May, the Federation of College Republicans in neighboring Kansas unanimously adopted a resolution urging the repeal of the death penalty in their state, arguing that “our broken and fallible system of capital punishment in no way matches up with our conservative values.”

In Colorado, the trial of the movie theater gunman James Holmes ended three weeks ago with the jury opting for life in prison instead of death, which also points to the rising nationwide trend.

But some conservative states have seen recent efforts to expand capital punishment. Utah, for instance, reinstated the firing squad in March as an alternative to lethal injections, in the wake of botched executions stemming from difficulties in obtaining the right drugs.

The events in Nebraska, too, suggest that the battle is far from over. The signatures gathered by Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will first be sent to local election officials for verification before the secretary of state can certify the measure for the general election ballot, reports the Columbus Telegram

If at least 114,000 of the signatures are valid, then groups on both sides of the debate will spend the next year rallying voters – and funders – to their cause before the November 2016 vote.

Still, advocates of abolishing the death penalty in the state are optimistic.

“Just like the legislators they elected, we believe the more Nebraskans learn about the failures of capital punishment, the more they will be inclined to get rid of it,” said the Rev. Stephen Griffith, incoming executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, to the Telegram.

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