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Kentucky Expands Voting Rights, Bucks Political Polarization

2021-05-25T14:39:30-05:00

Kentucky has defied a divisive political narrative on election reform and voting rights by bringing Republicans and Democrats together to make voting a little easier for state voters.

State lawmakers in Kentucky overwhelmingly voted to adopt HB 574, a bill that makes voting a little easier compared to pre-2020 law. The new law represents a noteworthy shift away from proposals in more than 40 states that make voting much less accessible compared to the 2020 election.

Kentucky, like most states, adopted emergency provisions during the COVID-19 pandemic that expanded voters’ options for casting ballots, and contributed to record-high voter turnout in the 2020 elections. However, contrary to states like Georgia, which responded to record voter participation by placing more restrictions on voter accessibility, the Kentucky legislature made some of the changes from 2020 permanent – with some adjustments.

State election officials call the new law the largest and most significant expansion of voting rights in Kentucky since 1891, and it had tremendous bipartisan support in the legislature – something that is extremely rare in the current political climate.

The bill passed nearly unanimously in both the State House (91-3) and Senate (33-3). It was also supported by Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams and Democratic Governor Andy Beshear, who called it “an important first step to preserve and protect every individual’s right to make their voice heard by casting their ballot in a secure and convenient manner on the date and time that works best for them.”

Not A Leap, But An Improvement

HB 574 v. pre-2020 law v. 2020 pandemic rules
Excuse needed for absentee voting no change weakens
Early voting strengthens weakens
“Curing” absentee ballots strengthens no change
Secured drop boxes strengthens to be determined
Online portal for registering for
& tracking absentee ballots
strengthens no change
County voting centers strengthens strengthens

Some advocates of HB 574 point out that compared to voter accessibility in 2020, the bill could have been better. University of Kentucky law professor Joshua Douglas, for instance, called it a “mild expansion” of voting, particularly as it adds only three days of in-person early voting and doesn’t improve access to mail-in ballots.

Prior to the pandemic and passage of HB 574, however, Kentucky had some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. For instance, there was no in-person early voting before 2020. Early voting existed only for absentee voters who sent in their ballots ahead of Election Day. Further, receiving an absentee ballot required an acceptable excuse like advanced age, physical disability, or temporary displacement from a voter’s home county.

Secretary of State Michael Adams and Gov. Beshear negotiated emergency provisions for the 2020 general election amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which expanded voter access by allowing:

  • Three weeks of no excuse in-person voting
  • Concerns over COVID to be used as an excuse to register for an absentee ballot
  • Use of an online portal to register for an absentee ballot and track the status of a ballot
  • A process to “cure” an absentee ballot if a discrepancy arose, like a mismatched signatures
  • The use of designated drop boxes for absentee ballots

These provisions were a tremendous leap forward from the current state law, and the result was record turnout that increased the GOP’s majority by 14 seats in the State House and by 2 seats in the Senate – giving Republicans a supermajority in the legislature.

HB 574 makes permanent a standard method for “curing” absentee ballots. If a problem should arise with an absentee ballot, such as a missing or mismatched signature, the county clerk will contact the voter by email and mail with directions on how to fix the ballot. Prior to the bill’s passage, ballots with errors on them would have had to be rejected.

The new law also guarantees secured drop boxes in future elections, something that was not previously allowed prior to 2020. The number and placement of these drop boxes must be approved by the state’s election board.

The online portal to register for and track absentee ballots added for the 2020 general election will remain as well, and access to in-person voting will be expanded through an early voting period and by allowing counties to set up voting centers that don’t require voters to be in their respective precincts to cast a ballot.

Three days of early voting (the Thursday through Saturday before Election Day) is a marginal improvement. It also means Kentucky will have the shortest early voting period of the 44 states that allow early voting. However, it was a compromise Secretary of State Michael Adams thought had the strongest chance of passing.

“We want a bill that can pass. This is not just a statement, or platform. We’re trying to make law here. I know folks want more in-person, more mail-in and this and that, but we want something that will pass in the senate,” he said before members of the State House.

It was also a compromise Kentucky lawmakers were under no pressure to pass. They could have just as easily followed the same path as states like Georgia, Texas, or Florida by leaning into former President Trump and his allies’ lies about the 2020 election. HB 574 included election security provisions such as a requirement for counties to transition to only using paper ballots in future elections, but it had nothing in it that prevented bipartisan support.

And though Republicans didn’t need Democratic support to pass the bill (their supermajority gives them control over three-quarters of the state’s legislative seats), nearly all Democratic lawmakers got on board to support provisions that would expand accessibility and convenience for voters, even if only slightly.

“While points of friction often get more attention, it’s important to note that on this crucial matter – at this profoundly consequential moment in history – everyone put their politics aside and instead put their shoulders to the grindstone to get this done for our people,” said Gov. Beshear in a statement after the signing of HB 574 and other bipartisan legislation. “We consulted with one another, and everyone agreed the right thing to do right now is to capitalize on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in our people and our future.”

Kentucky Debunks Another Lie About Expanding Voter Accessibility

Kentucky also debunked a consequential claim used to justify GOP support for placing further restrictions on voter access: Trump’s assertion that making voting easier, “if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

Kentucky Republicans benefited greatly in legislative races. Donald Trump won the state by 26 percentage points, a drop of only 3 percentage points from 2016. Senator Mitch McConnell won re-election as he increased his victory margin from 16% in 2014 to nearly 20% last year. All of this happened even though Kentucky officials made voting easier.

Despite these temporary expansions of voting rights, there were no known cases of voter fraud in Kentucky, according to Adams. Republicans benefited from higher turnout because Kentucky has a voting population that heavily prefers the Republican Party.

Election results are a reflection of voter preference at a given time. The more voters who participate, the more accurate this reflection is of the whole voting population. If a party benefits from more voter turnout, that is not an indication of fraud or misconduct, but of who the majority of voters in a state truly prefer. Time will tell if the new law’s expansion of voter access will continue to affect turnout and whether it will help perpetuate the Republican party’s majority in Kentucky.

Problem Addressed: Voting rights

Written by Shawn Griffiths

Published on May 25, 2021

Feature image: Daniel Hanscom

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Sources

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