Abortion rights advocates say no matter the election outcome, it’s time to fight

Counting of late and provisional ballots could change outcome of two tight legislative races retaining filibuster

By: - November 9, 2022 6:13 pm
abortion rally

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, a leading advocate for abortion rights, speaks at a post-election rally Nov. 9, 2022, calling for an all-out effort to retain abortion rights. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Advocates for abortion rights rallied Wednesday, saying that regardless of the final results of the general election, “we have a fight ahead of us.”

“I can promise that we will use every tool in the toolbox to stand against any (abortion) ban in Nebraska and make sure we keep the government out of the conversation between a patient and their doctor,” said State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha.

As Hunt spoke, election officials in Douglas and Lancaster Counties were preparing to count early ballots submitted in the final days of the election.

Ballots yet to be counted

Those, and the later counting of provisional ballots, will have a huge bearing on whether abortion rights advocates retain enough votes to block abortion legislation.

As of late Tuesday night, the Republican Party led in enough legislative races to give it a 33-vote supermajority in the officially nonpartisan Unicameral Legislature.

That would be enough votes to fend off a filibuster that abortion rights advocates used this spring to block a ban on abortion. The lack of 33 votes also prompted Gov. Pete Ricketts, an opponent of abortion rights, to abandon plans to hold a special session to enact stricter abortion laws in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Two races too close to call still

But two key state legislative races are still too close to call, and at least two Democratic observers think that the party has a decent shot at retaining enough seats, 17, to maintain the power to block abortion bans and other bills via the filibuster.

“It’s going to be a real squeaker. We’re going to be tortured to the bitter end,” said Crystal Rhoades, former Douglas County Democratic Party chair whose husband, Ben Onkka, was campaign manager in one of the tight races. 

It’s going to be a real squeaker.

– Crystal Rhoades, former Douglas County Democratic Party chair

That race, in central Omaha’s 20th District, saw attorney Stu Dornan, a Republican, take a late, 122-vote lead over mental health professional John Frederickson, a Democrat, in the contest to replace GOP State Sen. John McCollister.

Onkka said 990 absentee ballots were turned in on Election Day from that district and are yet to be counted in that race. Of those, only 355 are Republican voters.

Democrats could capture seat

If early voting trends hold, Onkka said there should be enough for Frederickson to pull slightly ahead.

A note of caution: There will still be dozens of provisional ballots to count, as well as those that couldn’t, for some reason, be counted by machine. So that could change the outcome of that race, too.

Valerie Stoj, a spokeswoman for the Douglas County Election Commissioner’s Office, said counting of the last-minute absentee ballots should be done by Friday morning. Provisional ballots, she said, will be counted by Nov. 18, with final results of the election to be certified by Nov. 23.

Of course, an automatic recount in that race may also be required.

Lincoln race still undecided

But for Democrats to spoil the Republican push for a supermajority, Democrat George Dungan III, a public defender, needs to maintain his slim lead over his Republican opponent, attorney Russ Barger.

Dungan, as of Tuesday night, held a 61-vote lead in a district long represented by Democrats. State Sen. Matt Hansen, a Democrat, was term-limited in District 26. He was elected Lancaster County clerk on Tuesday.

In Lancaster County, nearly 7,500 ballots, county-wide, are left to count, according to Lancaster County Election Commissioner David Shively. He said he hopes to finalize the vote count prior to Thanksgiving.

Rhoades, meanwhile, was holding a slim lead in her race for Douglas County Clerk of the District Court over Republican Tom Flynn in a race that may be headed for a recount. Rhoades currently serves on the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

Time to speak up

Hunt and other abortion rights advocates said Wednesday that regardless of whether they will still have enough supporters to sustain a filibuster or not, it’s now time for Nebraskans to make their voices heard on the abortion issue.

Polling, they said at a State Capitol rally, shows that Nebraskans oppose abortion bans, and elected officials need to recognize that.

“Abortion should never be a social issue or a political football or a wedge issue that can be tossed every election,” said Erin Feichtinger of the Women’s Fund of Omaha. “It’s an economic issue and a personal decision.”

Speakers at the rally, organized by the coalition Nebraskans for Abortion Access, noted that on Tuesday, three states adopted constitutional amendments to ensure the right to abortion, and a fourth state, Kentucky, rejected an anti-abortion measure.

When asked, officials at Wednesday’s rally said that mounting a petition drive to put a similar constitutional amendment before Nebraska voters is an option they have considered if legislative attempts to maintain abortion rights fail.

Gov.-elect Jim Pillen, a University of Nebraska Regent and a hog farmer, speaks to his election night victory rally at Lincoln’s Marriott Cornhusker Hotel (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Currently, Nebraska law bans abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy unless the health of the mother is threatened. But there has been discussion of seeking legislation to change that to the 12th or 15th week.

Gov.-elect Jim Pillen, at his election night victory party Tuesday, made it clear that he will seek a stricter ban on abortion when he takes office in January.

“We can and will protect innocent life,” he told a throng of supporters Tuesday night, to loud applause.





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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.