Abortion ban fails in small Nebraska town; others pass, some narrowly

Curtis is the largest town in politically ruby-red Frontier County, a county where, on Election Night 2020, 85% of voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump.

But last Tuesday, Curtis voters went back to the polls and did something that, at first glance, seems to contradict their ultra-conservative image.

They voted down an ordinance that would have banned abortion within the city limits. They did so by a giant, 41-point margin.

“I don’t think that the vote was necessarily a referendum on abortion,” said Brad Welch, mayor of the town of 806 people. “I think it’s just that it went too far. The ordinance that was presented…became too political.” 

Six Nebraska towns – all hundreds of miles away from the nearest abortion provider – voted on Tuesday whether to ban abortion within city limits. 

The bans passed in all but one, Curtis. 

That wasn’t a coincidence, said the Curtis mayor and a University of Nebraska-Lincoln expert. 

Of the six towns where abortion was on the ballot, Curtis’s potential ordinance was the most complex, Welch said. It was the most restrictive. 

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Curtis is also the largest of the six small Nebraska towns that voted on abortion Tuesday night. 

(Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said that Curtis is the county seat in Frontier County. It’s the largest town, but not the county seat.)

It’s home to the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, a University of Nebraska campus where students earn two-year associate’s degrees in majors like agronomy, agricultural science and livestock management. The college of roughly 300 students could make the town’s voting pattern unique, said John Hibbing, UNL political science professor.  

UNL Prof. John Hibbing

But even in towns that decided to ban abortion – Paxton, Hershey, Brady, Arnold and Wallace – the margins show that rural voters aren’t a monolith when it comes to abortion access, or the role the government should have in restricting it. 

In Paxton, only 8 votes separated yeses and nos. Brady saw a 19-vote difference. The widest margin was in Wallace, where 64% of voters – 112 people – favored banning abortion. 

“Yes, the majority sentiment in small-town Nebraska does support these restrictions on abortion,” Hibbing said. “But notably, there are people in each of those communities that don’t feel that way. They’re there, they’re just not the majority.”

Election Day on Tuesday was the latest wave of towns in rural America trying to ban abortion at the local level. It’s a move popularized by Mark Lee Dickson, an anti-abortion preacher from Texas. He’d already helped pass abortion bans in three Nebraska towns. At least 10 towns are still gathering signatures to try the same – including Bellevue, home to one of the state’s three abortion clinics.

The ordinances that passed on Tuesday were straightforward: Make the town what Dickson calls a “sanctuary for the unborn,” where abortion is unlawful, abortion-inducing drugs are contraband, and aiding and abetting an abortion within city limits would result in a $500 fine. 

But the Curtis ordinance took things further. It included restrictions on businesses that entered into contracts with the city, stating they could not cover abortions in employee health insurance, cover travel costs if an employee needed to get to an abortion, or donate to abortion-related funds.

It would have tried to get Internet providers to restrict access to abortion-related websites within city limits, and blocked access to those websites in city-owned buildings and public libraries. 

And it would have let people sue their neighbors for violating aspects of the ordinance.

“I’m pro-life. I’m against abortion. But I didn’t vote for this ordinance,” Welch said. “My gut feeling is that a lot of the town is probably pro-life.”

The Curtis ordinance was just too much, the mayor said. Especially in a town that’s 216 miles away from the closest abortion provider. 

“It was more of a political-statement ordinance than solving-a-problem ordinance,” Welch said. “My viewpoint is, as a city official, we pass ordinances to solve problems or prevent a foreseeable existing problem. [Abortion] isn’t a problem here.”

In the months before the election, local anti-abortion activists told the Flatwater Free Press they were confident the bans would pass. In Curtis, Melanie Standiford said everyone she knew in town was Christan and anti-abortion.  

Standiford had helped collect signatures in Curtis. She was also the news director of KNOP, a TV station and NBC affiliate that serves the area around North Platte. She extensively covered abortion ban ordinances while also petitioning for the issue in her town.

Gray Television, the parent company of KNOP, fired Standiford from her job the day the Flatwater Free Press published an article about the potential abortion bans. KNOP has since removed her stories related to the bans.

Standiford was then appointed chair of the Frontier County GOP.

Recent abortion-related votes suggest that rural attitudes toward abortion sometimes aren’t as straightforward as they may appear. 

In August, Kansans voted whether to keep abortion legal in the state. Rural counties that normally were Republican strongholds turned down the amendment that would have banned abortion. In southern Kansas, Osage and Franklin counties haven’t voted blue in a presidential election since 1964. The amendment to ban abortion failed in both counties. Statewide, the amendment was defeated – in large urban counties, and with the help of some small rural counties. 

In Brady, a village outside North Platte, board chair Todd Roe said Tuesday’s vote does signify that majority of the village is opposed to abortion. But he doesn’t see rural Nebraska as entirely anti-abortion. There are more pro-choice residents in the area than people realize, he said. 

It’s just that anti-abortion advocates seem to be the ones voting and paying more attention in the area, he said. 57% of Brady voters said “yes” to banning abortion.

Even with abortion on the ballot, it wasn’t something that community members discussed much in the weeks leading up to the vote, both Roe and Welch said. It’s a subject that automatically generates conflict, Roe said. 

“If you really felt strongly about a woman’s right to choose, that might not be something you lead off discussions at the church with,” Hibbing said. “You might be quiet about that.”

Roe said he believes the vote shows the importance of voting, regardless of a person’s beliefs. Petitioning for a ballot initiative is any voters’ right. The village board wasn’t going to stifle that, he said. 

“We took a pretty firm position that we were going to represent the majority and not have personal opinions on the matter,” Roe said. “The majority of our community has spoken. Now, we have a responsibility to represent that.”

By Natalia Alamdari

Natalia Alamdari has worked at newspapers throughout the country. Her reporting has taken her to small town shooting ranges in Missouri, contentious school board meetings in Delaware, and aquariums in Texas. Working at the Flatwater Free Press is a return to Nebraska — in college, she spent a summer interning at the Omaha World-Herald. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia and native Texan. When she’s not reporting, you can probably find her baking, petting her cat, or trying out a new crafty hobby.

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