Jul 08, 2024

Nebraska abortion fight fuels record filings to remove signatures from petitions

Posted Jul 08, 2024 7:00 PM

Aaron Sanderford

Nebraska Examiner

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s midsummer flurry of citizen initiatives seeking the ballot in November, including competing campaigns on abortion, spurred hundreds of requests to remove people’s signatures from petitions.  

At least 348 people had signed state affidavits claiming they mistakenly signed a petition, according to unofficial numbers obtained by the Examiner late last week. More than 300 asked to pull signatures from the Protect Women and Children petition, which is backed by abortion opponents and would limit how long into a pregnancy abortion is legal.

Affidavits in 2024 to remove signatures by ballot initiative, to date

Protect Women and Children, 304

Protect Our Rights, 12

Choose Life Now, 11

Nebraska Human Life Protection (stopped collecting), 10

EPIC Option consumption tax, 4

Consumption tax exemption for groceries, 4

Paid sick leave, 3

Total, 348

Those 304 would be the most filed against a single ballot initiative with the Secretary of State’s Office. The previous high was set in 2023, when nearly 200 were filed against an effort to repeal a tax credit for funding private school scholarships. 

Back then, school choice supporters organized a “Decline to Sign” campaign. This year, an abortion-rights campaign encouraged supporters to sign a signature-removal affidavit if they were concerned they might have signed the wrong petition.

Organized effort to remove signatures

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, a supporter of the abortion-rights campaign, Protect Our Rights, has criticized circulators with the competing Protect Women and Children petition. She said some purposely sowed confusion among people who support abortion rights.

She told the Nebraska Examiner on Friday that hundreds, if not thousands, of signers thought they were supporting abortion rights. She said people “were misled about the purpose of the petition and tricked into signing something they don’t actually support.”

She shared allegations from one supporter who said her sister had been told she could sign for an entire family. Nebraska law requires people to sign for themselves. At least seven formal complaints were filed against circulators for each effort. More were still being reviewed.

“This is what happens when petitions pay per signature,” Hunt said. “Many of them said they were flown in from other states for the final push… This only incentivizes gatherers to get as many signatures as possible, by any means.”

Opponents label removal push ‘spectacle’

Protect Women and Children organizers said the signature-removal push by the Protect Our Rights campaign reflects concern from abortion-rights advocates that most voters in a red state like Nebraska prefer leaving the Legislature’s laws and authority on abortion in place.

The group said it had more than 1,200 volunteers along with paid petition circulators and nonprofit backers who gathered more than 205,000 signatures. The Protect Our Rights campaign also used paid petition circulators, volunteers and nonprofits.

“The activists organizing their followers to ‘remove their names’ is a mere media spectacle,” Brenna Grasz said. “Protect Women and Children garnered more than 205,000 signatures in a record number of days, and has an unprecedented volunteer army going into November.”

Protect Women and Children seeks to restrict abortions after the first trimester to no more than 12 to 14 weeks gestational age. But the way the measure is written, the proposed constitutional amendment would let state lawmakers pass stricter bans. 

Its language contains exceptions for the life of the mother, but opponents argue the exceptions were written to be difficult to access. Supporters say it would maintain legal protections for the unborn, including parental notification requirements.

Abortion law in Nebraska

Nebraska currently restricts abortion to 12 weeks gestational age, or about 10 weeks after fertilization. State lawmakers tightened restrictions most recently in 2023. The state had previously allowed abortion up to 20 weeks after conception.

Social conservatives fell a single vote short of passing a bill that would have banned abortion after an ultrasound can detect embryonic cardiac activity, at about six weeks. Gov. Jim Pillen and others have said their goal is an outright ban.

The Protect Our Rights petition would cement the right to an abortion in the state constitution. It would allow abortions until the point of fetal viability, as defined by a person’s medical provider, typically between 22 and 24 weeks gestation. 

Its organizers said they turned in more than 207,000 signatures. Both needed 123,000 valid signatures from registered Nebraska voters to approve a constitutional amendment, along with a baseline of 5% from voters in 38 counties.

Critics have said Protect Our Rights’ language leaves too much room for medical providers to allow late-term abortions. Supporters say the proposal addresses fetal anomalies and health risks and values the relationships between women and doctors.

Both likely to make ballot

Political observers expect both abortion petitions to make the fall ballot, which would be the first time competing abortion amendments made the same ballot in the same election since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.

The stakes of both amendments reaching the November ballot could be significant. Both campaigns reported raising more than $2 million apiece. Both have ties to national donors. And if both pass, the one with the most votes gets into the constitution.

Since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision in 2022, voters in California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Vermont have either adopted protections for abortion rights or rejected new restrictions or bans.  

Six more states have abortion already on the ballot this fall — Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Nevada, New York and South Dakota. Another five appear poised to add it — Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri, Montana and Nebraska. 

Signature checks underway

Nebraska and county election officials are in the early stages of verifying signatures. They have 40 days, plus a little time to transport signatures for verification. Then the final tussles over ballot language begin, and will include the attorney general.

A dozen filed to remove signatures from the competing Protect Our Rights petition. People also filed 11 removal requests against a third abortion-related petition that fell short, Choose Life Now. 

That one would have granted legal “personhood” to fetuses and embryos. Critics said it would have caused problems in civil and criminal law. Defenders said it offered the clearest path to ending legal abortions. 

Voters filed a handful of affidavits to remove signatures from the other petitions circulating as well.