Kentucky's new Secretary of State Michael Adams says he's been an "election nerd" since childhood. Growing up in a Democratic family in what was once the Democratic stronghold of western Kentucky, the young Adams instead gravitated to the politics of Republicans, finding inspiration in President Ronald Reagan and Congressman Jack Kemp.
By age 13, he was advising his parents on the best candidates to support. At 16, Adams was volunteering for the 1992 Bush-Quayle presidential campaign.
The Paducah native has parlayed that early passion into a life-long career. He graduated from the University of Louisville and Harvard Law School, and then worked for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, former Gov. Ernie Fletcher, the Republican Governors' Association, and Vice President Mike Pence.
After helping other candidates win their elections, Adams made his own bid for public office last year. He defeated Democrat Heather French Henry to become the 86th Secretary of State for the commonwealth.
“I ran for this to be the chief election nerd,” says Adams. “Elections are so important to me, it’s the core of my entire career and it’s why I get up in the morning.”
Bill Would Require Proof of Identification
A key issue on Adams' agenda is legislation to require Kentuckians to present identification with photo when they go to vote. Under current law voters are requested to show a photo ID such as a driver's license. If they have none, they may present a Social Security card or credit card, or the poll worker can vouch for the person's identity.
Under Senate Bill 2, voters would have to present a government-issued photo ID. Student IDs with a photo and expiration date issued by a state college or university would also suffice.
Adams says photo IDs are required for mundane daily activities like cashing a check or purchasing Sudafed, so why not require such an identification to cast a ballot in elections.
“How can you live as a first-class American citizen in modern life without an ID?” Adams says.
To ensure the proposal does not disenfranchise any potential voters, SB 2 waives the $30 fee to acquire a state-issued identification card for those who cannot afford it. Adams says that provision is critical.
“If I see a bill that doesn't provide a free ID, I’m going to publicly oppose it, even if it kills my agenda,” he says. “This is not right, it’s not humane, and it’s not constitutional, I don’t think, without a free ID for everybody.”
Individuals still unable to obtain the proper ID by Election Day would be able to cast a provisional ballot, but they would have to later verify their identity to voting officials.
Ensuring Accurate Voter Rolls
Adams says the photo ID requirement is the first step to restoring integrity and public confidence in state elections. He says 20 people have been convicted and imprisoned for election-fraud related offenses in Kentucky in recent years. But he also says that none of those people committed voter impersonation.
Even as voting officials work to protect election systems from foreign hacking, Adams says the state should take basic steps to protect the integrity of who votes. That includes ensuring accurate voter registration rolls. Adams says some 300,000 people -- or about 8 percent of the voter rolls -- should have their registrations purged because they have moved out of state, died, committed a felony, or are no longer mentally competent.
“This is not a partisan issue, it’s just good government and competence,” says Adams. “Having accurate voter rolls is good for everybody.”
Critics of similar plans pursued by other states contend purges of registration data result in legitimate voters being unable to cast a ballot. Adams says that won't happen in Kentucky.
“We're not going to suppress anybody,” he says. “To me it’s important that people engage – I want them to go out there and fight for their team.”
Adams is already working to secure court permission to clean up the state's voter registration rolls. He says the process can occur without action by lawmakers, unless his office and the state Board of Elections need additional funds to conduct the review and purge. Adams says one thing that won't get a person's registration removed is their failure to participate in previous elections.
“I don’t want not voting to be a condition that gets you kicked off the rolls,” the secretary says. “Not voting’s an American freedom.”
Other Voting Issues
Adams also wants to make it easier for people to vote early if they will be out of town on Election Day. And he's considering ways to extend voting hours on primary and general election days. Adams says he thinks the state could expand voting hours from the current 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. to last until 7 or 8 p.m.
If that happens, he suggest creating two, seven-hour shifts for poll workers. (Poll workers now work one, 12-hour shift.) He also wants to explore ways to have private employers incentivize their employees to serve as poll workers.
“We’ve got a crisis in this state,” says Adams. “We don’t have enough poll workers, and it’s getting harder and harder every year… I want to find a way to make this easier.”
Although he wants to facilitate the balloting process, Adams doesn't want to place more financial or logistical burdens on county clerks responsible for managing the vote in the state's 120 counties.
“They're already not getting the amounts of money that, by law, they’re supposed to get from Frankfort to run their elections,” the secretary says. “The last thing I want to do to the clerks is to give them another unfunded mandate.”
Adams also supports restoration of voting rights for certain former felons. But rather than doing that through executive order as Gov. Andy Beshear recently did, he prefers having that occur through legislation.
“I think the legislature and the public ought to have some voice in who gets their rights restored and who doesn’t,” says Adams. “Do we have a period of rehabilitation, do we have restitution in cases of economic crimes, are there certain offenses that we should exclude?”
Beshear's order restored voting rights to some 140,000 low-level, non-violent felons who had completed their sentences. But Adams says Beshear failed to exclude felons who may have been convicted of crimes like tampering with voting machines or falsifying a voter registration.
“We need to include all of those election law felonies in whatever version of this we come up with, and that’s what I’m going to ask the legislature to do,” says the secretary.
Adams says he also supports reversing a law enacted by the 2019 General Assembly to limit the Secretary of State power over the state Board of Elections. He says whether he or Heather French Henry had won the 2019 race, he thought those duties should be restored to the new secretary. But Adams also says getting that law changed is not a priority for him.
Signing the Pages of History
Although Adams has been a Republican since his youth, he says one of his roll models is a former Democratic president.
“Bill Clinton was a poor kid from rural background who worked really hard, believed in certain things, and just from his own willpower and bootstraps made it to the top of his profession,” says Adams. “I didn’t vote for him, I voted for the other guy, but I always liked Bill Clinton and I respected his story.”
Adams was the first in his family to get a college degree, and he attended Harvard with the help of financial aid. He says he was recruited to run for Kentucky Attorney General, but he declined those requests because without prosecutorial or law enforcement experience he felt he wouldn't be the best-qualified candidate for the job.
As Secretary of State, Adams oversees elections issues as well as business services, including maintaining records to create new companies and registering trademarks. He also signs executive actions, proclamations, extradition orders, and other directives issued by the governor.
“The only core constitutional duty that I have in this office, the only duty that’s not set by the legislature in law, is to attest to the acts of the governor,” says Adams. “It’s really special to literally put your signature on the pages of history.”