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Difficult to predict turnout as rare special election to pick new House member approaches

From the Polls are open. Here's what you need to know about special election series
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It's been 71 years since we've done this.

The June 28 special election to fill the unexpired term of former Rep. Jeff Fortenberry will mark the first time Nebraska voters have been called back to the polls since Robert Harrison of Norfolk was elected to the House of Representatives during a special election in 1951 following the death of Rep. Karl Stefan.

Fortenberry leaves nothing unturned in urging judge to give him probation

This time it's a special election to fill the unexpired term of Fortenberry, who resigned following his conviction on charges that he lied to federal officials about illegal foreign contributions to his 2016 reelection campaign.

And in an odd twist of fate, Fortenberry will be sentenced on the same day as the election to fill the seat in Congress that he held for 17 years.

Next week, voters will choose between two state senators, Republican nominee Mike Flood of Norfolk and Democratic nominee Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, to fill the remaining six months of Fortenberry's two-year term.

This time, Norfolk is in eastern Nebraska's compact 1st District; when Harrison took office, it was part of the 3rd District and Nebraska had four seats in the House. The state lost one seat in the House following the 1960 census. 

Nebraska congressional districts map
Democrat: Patty Pansing Brooks
Republican: Mike Flood

The most recent redistricting of House seats completed by the Legislature during a special session last September created a 1st District composed of 10 counties and portions of two others and it includes Lincoln, Bellevue, Norfolk, Fremont and Columbus.

As of early afternoon Tuesday, 18,014 of the 33,792 early ballots mailed to Lancaster County voters who requested them had been returned, but Election Commissioner David Shively was anticipating a steady flow later in the day.

"Early-person voting is up," he said. "Voting by mail is down," and it's difficult to predict total turnout in this unusual election held in the summer.

"It's unique to have an election in June," Shively noted during an interview at the Lancaster County Election Commissioner's Office at 601 N. 46th St., adjacent to the high-traffic state driver's license renewal office. 

A drop box for voters is available on the north side of the election commissioner's building.

"I don't know how to anticipate turnout," Shively said. "I anticipated more activity from the candidates and the parties" in spurring turnout next week, he said.

With national attention focused on growing distrust of 2020 presidential election results generated largely by former President Donald Trump and his supporters, Shively said he believes "Nebraskans can be very confident that our elections are secure."

"We do everything we possibly can to assure that," he said.

"And I would assume that most states are continuing to find ways to make things more secure."

Waiting in a back room at his office were long rows of ballot boxes to be transported to polling sites next week; vote-counting machines were securely sheltered behind glass and locked doors. The voting machines are double-checked and tested and are not tied to the internet.

Fortenberry's predecessor, former Rep. Doug Bereuter, also resigned from the 1st District House seat. But Bereuter left in 2004 to become president of the Asia Foundation and timed his departure late in his final term to avoid the need for a special election.

Pansing Brooks and Flood were named by party leaders as the nominees in this month's special election to serve the final six months of Fortenberry's term. 

They were chosen by their party's voters in the May 10 primary election to be nominees in the Nov. 8 general election to serve a new two-year term beginning in January. 

First lady Susanne Shore endorses Pansing Brooks, countering Gov. Ricketts' pick in 1st District House race
Gun violence sparks differences between Flood, Pansing Brooks

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSdon

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