Most people don’t think twice about presenting some form of photo identification when they go to vote.
That practice may be a habit for the 98 percent of Kentuckians who already show their driver’s license or other form of government ID, but it’s not the law. Current statute says voters must only present some kind of ID, but it doesn’t have to include a photo.
Senate Bill 2 seeks to change that by requiring photo IDs from all voters before they can cast a ballot.
Kentucky’s new Secretary of State Michael Adams is pushing that measure along with a House bill to give Kentuckians more voting options. The Republican campaigned on the promise that he would make voting easier and cheating on elections more difficult.
“To me it’s very important for all Kentuckians to see that their chief election official is playing it straight, is fair and neutral,” says Adams. “We’re trying to make this better for everybody.”
Details of Photo ID Measure
The original version of SB 2 required all voters to present some form of government-issued identification that includes a photograph. Those without photo ID would have to cast a provisional ballot, which would only be counted if the person goes to their county clerk’s office within three days after the election and presents some form of valid identification. Under the bill, the state will provide free picture ID cards to people who don’t have one or cannot afford one.
Adams says SB 2 is based on Indiana’s voter photo ID law, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled as constitutional in 2008. As SB 2 moved through the Senate and then the House, Adams says he integrated changes requested by the American Civil Liberties Union, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, League of Women Voters, and University of Kentucky law professor Joshua Douglas, an expert on voting issues.
Those changes included removing a requirement for an expiration date on student IDs issued by a school or university. Those without photo ID can complete a “reasonable impediment affirmation” that explains why they don’t have the proper identification and then cast a regular ballot in state elections. (To vote in a federal election, the person would still have to cast a provisional ballot.)
Votes in the Senate (29-9) and the House (62-35) generally fell along party lines. Republicans argue the measure is vital to protecting the integrity of the vote. Democrats charge the legislation would make it harder for some people to cast ballots, especially minorities, students, and women who change their last names. Opponents also contend the legislation is unnecessary since there have been no documented cases of voter impersonation in the commonwealth.
“We’re doing this to supposedly root out voter fraud or make people more confident in the elections, but at what cost?” says Douglas. “I want the cost to be zero in terms of voter disenfranchisement.”
Impacts to Turnout
Adams says studies are mixed on whether voter photo ID laws actually harm turnout.
Fellow Republican Trey Grayson, who served as Kentucky Secretary of State from 2004 to 2011, says turnout is determined more by who is on the ballot than by voting laws. He says he hopes the final version of the bill that emerges looks more like the House version than the original Senate version. The one change he would make is to delay implementation until 2021, but Frankfort Republicans want the new provisions in place for the November elections. Grayson says that presents a big challenge for county clerks and election officials.
“Making sure that we educate voters on these new laws and we get IDs into the hands of folks who don’t have them,” he says.
Democrat Bob Babbage, who is a former Secretary of State and one-time candidate for governor, says Adams has crafted a “solid” bill.
“The fact that it’s now in its eighth draft [is] an indicator that a lot of effort has gone into getting it just right,” says Babbage. But he adds, “If there’s any impediment to anybody voting... that’s not a good thing and we should work collectively, civically to solve that.”
House and Senate members still have to resolve their respective differences on SB 2 before it can move on to final passage. It’s uncertain whether Gov. Andy Beshear would veto the legislation, which the Republican majorities in the legislature could easily override. Voting rights activists could also challenge the measure in court to delay its implementation or overturn the legislation outright.
“Courts in three other states have put on hold new photo ID bills that were passed and tried to be implemented that election year,” says Douglas. “So I do fear that [Adams] is not going to be able to avoid the litigation.”
Longer Voting Hours
While SB 2 addresses voter identification, House Bill 596 focuses on the balloting process.
“It’s a set of commonsense solutions making it easier to vote,” says Adams. “This is aimed at making the system, in a neutral way, fair for everybody and also convenient.”
HB 596 includes a provision to extend Election Day voting until 7 p.m. local time. (Polls now close at 6 p.m.) Adams says it also would enable more people to vote by absentee ballot, allow counties to establish voting centers where any resident of that county can vote instead of having to go to their precinct, and shorten the voter registration deadline from four weeks before election day to three weeks.
Douglas says he’d like to see even more reforms, such as longer polling hours and no-excuse absentee voting, but he says HB 596 is a good start.
“If this bill passes along with the House version of the photo ID bill, then it’s a net win for Kentucky voters,” says Douglas.
It’s uncertain how much these changes might cost county clerks to implement, but Adams says he hopes the fiscal impact is neutral or maybe even saves some money.
Adams stopped short of calling for in-person early voting. Kentucky is one of nine states that don’t offer that convenience to voters. Grayson says Kentucky could follow the model of Tennessee, which has a 10-day early voting period prior to Election Day. But he says lawmakers would have to provide county clerks with more funding to secure polling places and poll workers for the additional days of voting.
While early balloting gives voters more flexibility, Douglas says early voting doesn’t increase voter turnout. To do that, he prefers universal vote by mail or no-excuse absentee balloting. He says Colorado automatically mails all voters a ballot two weeks before Election Day. They can complete and return that ballot by mail, or they can still vote in person on Election Day.
But the current and former Secretaries of State say that idea would be risky in a state like Kentucky with a checkered history of vote buying.
“There are parts of our state, which shall go unnamed, where I’m convinced if we had no-excuse absentee balloting by mail that some shenanigans might take place,” says Grayson.
“Plus our voter rolls are not in compliance with federal or state law,” says Adams. “Some 8 to 10 percent of our voter file is phantom voters, [so] you can’t just be mailing these ballots out.”
There’s another impediment to early voting in Kentucky. Adams says the state constitution requires that elections be held on the same day, which he says would preclude any early voting periods.
Babbage says early balloting does offer voters more flexibility, but he says it poses challenges to those running for office.
“Candidates would say... that campaigns peak” close to Election Day, says Babbage. “A lot of the messaging of politics is heavily weighted to the end of the election cycle.”
Proposed Constitutional Amendments
Lawmakers have also proposed several measures to restore voting rights to certain felons who have completed their sentences. House Bill 6 would allow for the automatic restoration of voting at the completion of a sentence. Senate Bill 62 would let the General Assembly decide the parameters under which voting rights would be restored. Both measures require a constitutional amendment, which would have to be passed by three-fifths majorities in both the House and Senate, and approved by voters.
Adams says he prefers the Senate measure because he says it has a better chance of passage and because it includes a greater range of exclusions from restoration.
“I would like to see exclusions for [all] election law felonies,” says Adams. “The House version of this bill only provides for bribery in an election to be an exception for an automatic restoration. I think you need all of those felonies in there.”
Grayson, who has worked for voting rights restoration as a lobbyist, says he prefers the House version, but understands why lawmakers might prefer the Senate version.
“There’s bipartisan support for this, but [legislating] is the art of the possible,” says Grayson, “and this amendment to empower the legislature to do this is a huge first step.”
Felon disenfranchisement in the U.S. is a legacy of Jim Crow discrimination, according to Douglas. He says restoration should be automatic.
“I think it’s dangerous to leave this to General Assembly’s whims,” says Douglas. “There’s really no reason to tie the ability to vote, the most fundamental, important right in our democracy, to a mistake you made, that you’ve paid your time for.”
But Babbage says he would trust the General Assembly to craft restoration measures, if the Senate proposal was approved.
“I hope we can get on the road to bringing people back into the system to participate fully, no matter what their standing in life,” says Babbage.
Senate Bill 3 proposes a constitutional amendment to move the election of statewide constitutional officers to presidential election years starting in 2028. Proponents say the move would boost voter turnout and save money by eliminating the off-year election.
Opponents say the statewide races, especially the down ballot contests for auditor, treasurer, and other offices, could get lost in the focus on presidential and congressional races. Adams says down-ballot candidates would also have a harder time fundraising and purchasing airtime for campaign commercials.
Kentucky is one of three states that hold gubernatorial elections in odd-numbered years. Babbage says that gives the commonwealth unique access to the national spotlight.
“In that off year, you see everybody’s looking at the Kentucky race because it’s the best of the races,” says Babbage. “That attention counts for something.”
One option to avoid that, says Douglas, would be to hold statewide elections on the same year as other midterm elections.
For his part, Adams says his office is neutral on the proposal.
Up to four constitutional amendments can appear on Kentucky ballots at one time. Grayson warns even four proposed amendments could result in a lengthy ballot that he fears many people won’t read or simply cast a no vote.
A long ballot could also present time crunch for voters. Adams says state law sets a two-minute limit on casting one’s vote when there is a line of people waiting to complete their ballots.