Within days of each other last month, lawmakers in Kentucky and Georgia passed legislation overhauling their state’s voting procedures. Kentucky’s bill was generally hailed as a bipartisan effort that makes it easier to vote, while the Georgia measure was roundly criticized as a move by a Republican governor and a GOP-controlled legislature to restrict access to the ballot.
For University of Kentucky election law Professor Joshua Douglas, it’s not so much a matter of what’s in the respective bills, the but starting point from which legislators worked. He says Kentucky went from some of the most limited voting options in the country to expanding opportunities to vote. Georgia, he says, moved to restrict existing options. For example, lawmakers there reduced the time period to request absentee ballots and added new identification requirements for obtaining them. They also limited early voting hours, and cut the number of drop boxes and limited access to those boxes to traditional business hours.
“In Georgia… you see a fully partisan process as a response to the Democratic gains in the 2020 election, and a response to African American population increasing and tending to vote for one party,” says Douglass. “That really begins to question why are you targeting the kinds of voting processes that certain communities use?”
Kentucky’s new election law started from a very different place: COVID-19. Secretary of State Michael Adams says a “silver lining” of the pandemic was that it forced state and county officials of both parties to reimagine how elections could take place. Lawmakers allowed Adams, a Republican, and Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, to implement temporary changes for the 2020 vote, ranging from easier access to absentee ballots to weeks of in-person early voting.
Those changes resulted in a record turnout last fall: More than 2 million Kentuckians cast ballots, or about 64 percent of registered voters.
With that success in mind, Frankfort lawmakers acted in bipartisan fashion to enact the first major overhaul in the state’s voting procedures in 130 years.
“That sort of cooperation led to both better policy because everyone’s concerns were addressed but also a better look,” says Adams. “It’s a bad look when you have one party or the other try take over the election system.”
What Kentucky’s New Voting Bill Does
House Bill 574 provides for three days of early in-person voting, which includes one Saturday. It also calls for an online portal through which Kentuckians can request an absentee ballot, allows for the creation of county-wide voting centers, provides for secure ballot drop boxes that will be open 24 hours, and requires a paper trail for all ballots cast.
“Our goal is to have a voting bill that will cause voters to feel good about their vote,” says state Rep. Jennifer Decker (R-Waddy), sponsor of the legislation. “The paper ballots are what I think gives the voter the best feeling of integrity… The more integrity the ballot has, the more voter turnout will occur.”
Rep. Buddy Wheatley, a Covington Democrat who worked on HB 574, says the changes will lift the reputation from Kentucky of having some of the most restrictive voting procedures in the nation. Prior to last year’s elections, the only option for Kentuckians to vote in person was on Election Day between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
“We ended up passing a really good bill,” says Wheatley. “There’s a lot of improvements needed, and we will be working for those.”
Wheatley proposed an amendment to HB 574 calling for eight days of early in-person voting, including two Saturdays, but the House rejected that idea. Still, he applauds the addition of three extra days of in-person balloting. He also wants to see options for same-day voter registration.
Corey Shapiro, legal director of the ACLU of Kentucky, agrees that three days of early voting is not enough, especially for those people who may work multiple jobs. He suggests three weeks of early balloting, like what the state used under the pandemic circumstances last year. He also wants absentee ballots to be available to any registered voter who requests one.
“We’re in the 21st century and we need to make our election laws represent where people are and make it easy for them to vote, and no-excuse absentee ballot is one way to do that,” says Shapiro.
As Kentucky’s chief elections official, Adams says he’s pleased with the reforms in HB 574, especially in a state that he says is slow to embrace change. Before the pandemic began, he proposed legislation to extend voting on Election Day by one hour, which lawmakers rejected. Now, 13 months later he credits them for quadrupling the number of days people can vote.
Instead of pushing through more reforms next year, Adams says Kentuckians should get used to these changes made by HB 574 first.
“A lot of folks think we didn’t go far enough, and some people think that we went we too far,” says Adams. “Let’s actually go through a couple of elections with it and see how we like it.”
Balancing Access to the Ballot and Election Security
Voting security has become a prominent rallying cry among Republicans, especially those who believe the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.
But not everyone on the right subscribes to what’s become known as “the Big Lie.”
“All of this was just made up overnight from certain individuals and talking points,” says Republican James Young, a former director of elections for Metro Louisville. “It really is a myth.”
Young now works for a company that helps businesses and governments better serve voters with disabilities. He contends election administrators across the country take their jobs and security issues seriously.
While the results of Kentucky’s vote last year weren’t questioned, lawmakers did include measures in HB 574 to protect voting security.
“We did put in some provisions, quite hefty provisions with penalties for anything that would lead Kentuckians to doubt the integrity of their ballots,” says Decker.
For example, Decker says lawmakers made ballot harvesting, the practice of collecting the ballots of others and delivering them to election offices, a felony.
Still, Shapiro argues the accusations by Republicans over fraudulent voting is misplaced.
“The facts are very clear that election fraud is simply not a problem in Kentucky and across the country,” says Shapiro. “So what we really need to be focused on is, how are we going to make it easy for people to vote.”
But Adams contends that pitting better access to the vote against tighter election security is a false dichotomy.
“Democrats tend to have a myopic focus on access and not much thought to security. They think vote fraud is totally a myth,” says Adams. “On the right you’ve got Republicans that are obsessive about security and they have a blind spot to access, and they think that suppression is a myth. Both sides are wrong. The truth is really actually in the middle.”
The secretary of state says enhanced access can provide better security and vice versa. For example, he says the online portal to request absentee ballots will make it easier for election officials to track who gets those ballots and to monitor for lost or stolen ballots.
He also points to the state’s new photo ID requirement for voters. Opponents to the measure that passed last year feared it would limit the number of people who could vote. Instead, Adams says more than 2 million people voted last fall with proper identification. Just under 3,000 additional Kentuckians without photo IDs were allowed to vote under special provisions that allow for alternative identification.
Douglas credits Adams for including those “fail-safe” measures in Kentucky’s voter ID rules.
“The photo ID bill itself was also in many ways a good kind of compromise,” says Douglas.
Concerns about the Costs
One thing HB 574 doesn’t address: paying for the reforms.
“Change means money,” says Young, “and that’s certainly something I hope Rep. Decker and Rep. Wheatley are committing to today is to funding a lot of the changes that they have just signed on for.”
Decker acknowledges that county clerks will be stuck with the costs associated with the extra days of early voting. There are also the expenses associated with replacing aging voting machines with new ones that will create paper ballots.
“We have not kept up with the cost of elections, so we are going to look at that,” says Decker
Adams says costs also come into play when considering a no-excuse absentee ballot option. He says it costs about $6.50 per voter to process an absentee ballot, whereas to process a single in-person vote only costs about $3.50. Otherwise, he says he has no ideological objection to the no-excuse absentee option.
Democrats Propose Changes to Federal Voting Laws
In response to voting restrictions proposed by Republican lawmakers in states around the country, Washington Democrats are pushing a federal overhaul of election procedures nationwide.
H.R. 1, also known as The For the People Act, would set national standards for expanded voting rights, including easier registration and more early voting. It would also require super PACS and dark money groups to publicly disclose their donors, and mandate nonpartisan redistricting commissions as a way to address gerrymandering.
Douglas says what Democrats propose in H.R. 1 is to take the best voting practices from red, blue, and purple states and apply them to all states.
“From a policy perspective, these things make a heck of a lot of sense,” he says. “Congress certainly has the authority to do most of the things that are in H.R. 1.”
At the same time though, Douglas worries about the partisan nature of H.R. 1 so far. The legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives in early March with all Democrats except one voting for it, and all Republicans voting against it. (Two Republicans did not vote.)
Adams says this partisan approach by House Democrats is a bad idea.
“What the Georgia Republicans are being accused of, trying to rig the game to favor of their side, is what [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi is doing at a national level on steroids,” says Adams. “If you want to make people think the elections are rigged, this is a great way to do it.”
Even if H.R. 1 becomes mired in a partisan debate, Shapiro contends it can still make positive changes in a nonpartisan way. He says it will push many states, including Kentucky, to make additional changes to their voting procedures.
“It’s not a partisan issue to make it easier for people to vote and that’s what H.R. 1 is doing,” says Shapiro. “It’s setting a baseline that we can all agree is appropriate to make it easier for people to vote because the states aren’t necessarily doing it.”
Young says the measure would turn Kentucky Secretary of State Adams and other state elections officials into babysitters rather than administrators.
“H.R. 1 forces a lot of things on Kentucky if it were to pass, such as automated voter registration,” says Young. “It forces same-day registration on Kentucky, a lot of things that are in conflict with what our own General Assembly just passed.”
The state lawmakers also are split on their views of H.R. 1. Democrat Wheatley says elections will still be run locally, but having consistent policies across all 50 states will improve voter confidence in election outcomes. Republican Decker says she endorses removing roadblocks to voting, but she warns that there’s a danger to having too many early voting days because too much can happen in the final days of a campaign that could sway a person’s vote.