The death penalty has long been a controversial topic in American politics, but few people expected the latest showdown about capital punishment to occur in a deep red state like Nebraska. This saga, which started back in 2015, came to an end Tuesday night when voters chose to bring back the death penalty in Nebraska.
Last year, Nebraska became the first conservative state in over four decades to abolish the death penalty. The measure was introduced in the Nebraska Senate by independent Sen. Ernie Chambers. However, it actually gained traction amongst some Republican senators, who opposed the practice for fiscal or religious reasons.
But this was only the first act of the drama: after passing the Nebraska legislature, the bill was vetoed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, a longtime proponent of the death penalty — so much so that when Nebraska had halted its executions due to a lack of access to approved lethal injection drugs, he attempted to import the drugs from India.
Still, Ricketts veto wasn’t the end of the story: the legislature responded to the veto with an override, passing the bill over the governor’s objections 30-19. That should have put the matter to rest once and for all.
But it didn’t.
After losing the battle with the legislature, Ricketts took his cause to the people. Working with his father, Republican “megadonor” Joe Ricketts, the governor collected enough signatures to put the question on the November ballot, asking voters to reinstate the death penalty.
To add an extra layer of confusion to the whole process, the language in the ballot question had a tricky twist to it: voters wishing to support banning the death penalty should vote “retain,” while voters hoping to keep capital punishment are meant to vote “repeal.”
The effectiveness of the death penalty has long been a part of the national conversation. The Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was constitutional and not "cruel and unusual punishment" in 1976's Gregg v. Georgia decision. Some supporters claim that the death penalty acts as an effective deterrent of crime, though research seems to suggest otherwise. Opponents say that the real purpose of having the penalty on the books is for prosecutors to hold it over suspects’ heads in order to encourage them to make plea deals.
The back-and-forth over the death penalty in Nebraska has been closely watched by other states, especially those where more conservative politicians are joining liberals to oppose capital punishment on moral and fiscal grounds. Tuesday’s results show us that in Nebraska at least, the death penalty is still a viable option.