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In Nebraska, there's a battle on the ballot over abortion


Nebraska is one of several states where abortion rights activists are trying to take the issue directly to voters in the November election. But they're facing a competing campaign from abortion rights opponents with their own ballot initiative. It's possible both proposals could pass, and the winner would be decided by an untested law that's more than a hundred years old. Nebraska Public Media's Elizabeth Rembert reports.

ELIZABETH REMBERT, BYLINE: It's a cloudy Sunday morning at a farmer's market in Omaha, Neb. If you walk past the vendors selling flowers and vegetables and take a right at the brass band, you'll find people with clipboards asking for signatures for a petition to expand abortion in Nebraska.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Any registered voters want to sign a petition to protect the right to abortion access?

REMBERT: Campaign manager Allie Berry says collection is going well.

ALLIE BERRY: Decisions about pregnancy are personal, and they should be made between medical providers and the patient. A lot of people agree with that and are excited to sign.

REMBERT: This proposal would amend Nebraska's Constitution to allow abortions until fetal viability, usually around 24 weeks, like amendments being proposed in several other states. Right now, abortions in Nebraska are banned past 12 weeks, with a few exceptions. That's too restrictive for Samantha Weatherington, who signed the petition at the market.

SAMANTHA WEATHERINGTON: It's terrifying to think that we can't even make choices of our own bodies again. It's like going back to the '40s and '50s. I don't want to see people's daughters using a coat hanger as a last resort.

REMBERT: Walk another 15 feet, and you'll find the other side of the issue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The pro-life petition. Would you like sign?

REMBERT: This petition would enshrine Nebraska's current 12-week ban in the state's constitution, keeping the exceptions. Andrew Shradar stopped to add his signature.

ANDREW SHRADAR: I believe that protecting the unborn is what needs to be done no matter what. For the two petitions that are being held right now, that's the one that I'm going to sign.

REMBERT: The 12-week petition launched four months after the petition drive for the viability amendment. Brenna Grasz is the campaign's treasurer and says the group wanted to give voters another choice in November.

BRENNA GRASZ: We believe that Nebraska voters are majority pro-life. They are compassionate and common sense, and the vote in November will reflect that.

REMBERT: Both sides need signatures from 10% of the state's registered voters, about 123,000, to make it onto the ballot. They have until early July to meet that threshold. This could be the first time Nebraskan voters face two conflicting competing ballot measures, according to Secretary of State Bob Evnen.

BOB EVNEN: This has never occurred before in the state of Nebraska as best I know it.

REMBERT: To pass, a ballot proposal requires majority approval, with votes from at least 35% of those casting ballots in the November election. In this case, there's a chance both could be approved, and that's a sticky situation, Evnen says.

EVNEN: This is where the conflict arises. You have two conflicting initiatives proposing an amendment to the Nebraska Constitution. Now that conflict has to be resolved.

REMBERT: Evnen says it's the governor who decides if two approved initiatives are in conflict with each other. But to him, it's clear.

EVNEN: They are wholly in conflict with each other. There's nothing to reconcile.

REMBERT: According to a law established in 1912, it'll come down to whichever one got more approving votes.

EVNEN: They both cross the threshold of being adopted. Whichever one of these gets the most actual votes is the one that will go into the Nebraska Constitution.

REMBERT: In the meantime, both sides are focusing on getting on the ballot. Once they do that, they'll turn their focus to educating and turning out voters, since they might need more than a majority to win.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Rembert in Omaha, Neb. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Rembert