LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — An Omaha man who has spent years fighting to expand ballot-petition rights in Nebraska announced Thursday he will mount an independent bid for state treasurer while seeking to overturn a law that makes it harder for nonpartisan candidates to run for higher office.
Kent Bernbeck said he will challenge Republican John Murante in the November general election. His candidacy faces long odds, but the veteran direct-democracy activist has filed successful legal challenges in the past to loosen restrictions on citizen-led petition drives.
Murante, of Gretna, defeated former Omaha mayoral candidate Taylor Royal in the GOP primary Tuesday and faced no other opponents.
Bernbeck is challenging a law introduced by Murante that requires nonpartisan candidates to gather signatures from roughly 10 percent of the state’s registered voters, or nearly 120,000 people, to be included on the general election ballot. The previous threshold was 4,000.
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Nebraska’s signature requirement is now among the highest in the country. Thirty-seven states require 10,000 signatures or less.
Murante welcomed Bernbeck to the race and said the competition won’t affect his plans.
“I’ve spent the last year traveling around the state and talking about what my small-business experience and strong conservative leadership can bring to the position,” he said.
Bernbeck said the requirement limits voters’ options and makes it nearly impossible for independent candidates to get elected.
He plans to challenge the law in federal court and said Murante’s “partisan overreach” could cost taxpayers up to $300,000 in legal fees, based on similar lawsuits.
Bernbeck said he’ll bring the lawsuit soon and expects to have a decision by September. He said he has a “high degree of confidence” a judge will reverse the law, and has started collecting signatures to get his name on the ballot. Bernbeck said he’s aiming to collect 5,000 to 6,000 signatures so he’ll qualify if the law is reversed.
Sen. Bob Krist, of Omaha, sought to challenge the law earlier this year when he announced a run for governor as an independent candidate. He initially planned to form his own party to avoid the high signature threshold, but instead changed his registration to Democrat.
Krist won the Democratic party’s primary nomination Tuesday. He had challenged the law in the U.S. District Court in February but dropped the lawsuit when his party affiliation changed.
Bernbeck said he hopes the lawsuit and his campaign will promote accountability and encourage independent candidates to run in future elections.
“I haven’t laid awake in bed the last five years thinking about this job,” he said. “But I think I would do a good job because of my business experience.”