Candidates for Secretary of State, Primary Election

By John Gregory | 4/09/19 9:41 AM

Candidates competing in the Democratic and Republican Party primaries for the Kentucky Secretary of State appeared on Monday’s edition of KET’s Kentucky Tonight.

Host Renee Shaw spoke with Democrats Jason Belcher, Jason Griffith, Heather French Henry, and Geoff Sebesta; and with Republicans Michael Adams, Andrew English, Stephen Knipper, and Carl Nett. They discussed voting and election issues as well business services provided by the Secretary of State’s office.

This was the third in a series of discussions with candidates in contested races for statewide constitutional offices this election season.

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The Democratic Candidates
Jason Belcher was born in Richmond and raised in Pike County. He has degrees in history and international relations from the University of Kentucky and Troy State University. Belcher served nearly 10 years in the U.S. Air Force, including deployment to Iraq. In the private sector, he has worked as an analyst and business process consultant. He now lives in Floyd County.

Jason Griffith is a schoolteacher and small-business owner in Whitesburg. He has an undergraduate degree in music education, and master’s and doctoral degrees in education leadership. Griffith has taught music in high schools and colleges for 25 years. His business invented software for optical character recognition, which is used by law enforcement and attorneys.

Heather French Henry served as the commissioner and deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs under governors Steve Beshear and Matt Bevin. There she managed 900 employees and $102 million budget. Henry was raised in Maysville and Augusta, and graduated from the University of Cincinnati. She lives in Louisville and was Miss America 2000.

Geoff Sebesta is a professional comic book artist in Lexington. He grew up in Winchester, and has worked on political campaigns and grassroots organizing in Kentucky, New Jersey, and Texas. He also has extensive secretarial experience. Although running as a Democrat, Sebesta says his campaign will be “congruent with libertarian and socialist principles.”

Voting Issues
All four Democrats support efforts to make voting and voter registration easier, and to restore voting rights to people who have completed their sentences for low-level, non-violent felonies unrelated to election fraud. They also say the current state law requiring some form of identification be shown to vote is sufficient.

Sebesta says tougher voter ID laws are passed only to prevent people from voting.

“Anytime I am faced with a decision between more people voting and less people voting, I will always go for more people voting,” says Sebesta. “Always.”

He also advocates for electronic voting, making election days a state holiday, and same-day voter registration.

Griffith also supports same-day registration as well as longer voting hours on election days. He also wants to encourage high school students to help register voters and serve as poll workers. Griffith says he would implement automatic voter registration.

“What happens is when you renew your driver’s license or your state ID… your registration moves to the new precinct where you live,” says Griffith. “It’s not something you have to sign up for again, you just go in and it does it.”

Henry agrees with automatic registration but says that any changes to voting procedures should not place undue burdens or unfunded mandates on county clerks offices. She also wants school children to be taught about elections and the importance of voting.

“If you bring these issues to them at a younger age,” says Henry, “and you make it easier to access, they will continue that pattern for the rest of their life.”

Belcher says he would push for automatic registration, early voting, and electronic voting. He says West Virginia has a mobile app that allows military personnel serving overseas to vote. He says Kentucky could replicate that idea for all voters.

“The encryption technology that keeps that safe for our military members to vote from remote locations is certainly capable of keeping votes safe for people who are voting right here in Kentucky,” says Belcher.

The Duties of Secretary of State
The 2019 General Assembly enacted legislation to limit the Secretary of State’s power over the state Board of Elections and access to voter rolls. Under the measure signed by Gov. Bevin, a Secretary of State will no longer serve as chair or be a voting member of the elections board. A Secretary who misuses voter registration information could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor.

State Sen. Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) promoted the changes in the wake of investigations and newspaper reports that allege current Secretary Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, improperly accessed the voter registration system to review data on political rivals.

The four Democratic candidates concede that the legislature can change the Secretary of State’s official duties, but disagree with the decision to do so. Belcher fears the move might weaken efforts by the Board of Elections to maintain fair and secure votes. He claims states that don’t have oversight by a strong state elections board tend to have more voter fraud and vote tampering.

“Clearly the legislature has the authority to do it,” says Belcher, “but that means future legislatures will have the authority to undo it, and I hope they will.”

Griffith calls the legislation a “bully bill.”

“The dispensation of the duties of the office of Secretary of State are not partisan. It is blind to corruption, it is blind to influence,” says Griffith. “To me, [legislators] completely overstepped what they were supposed to do.”

In addition to changing the Secretary’s role, Griffith also opposes a provision that enables the governor to appoint two people the Board of Elections.

Henry says she likes a provision that brings county clerks on to the elections board. Otherwise she opposes the move to weaken the role of a Secretary of State, who she says oversees grant funding for county voting machines and who has a federal clearance to know about cybersecurity threats to Kentucky’s voting system.

“I would choose to still want to have a voting seat at that table because of the vital information and the fiscal responsibility that you have,” says Henry.

Sebasta says the legislation was poorly written and improperly passed. By removing the Secretary as a voting member of the elections board, he says that group will no longer be able to break a tie vote.

Business Services and Other Priorities
The Democrats don’t propose any substantive changes to the Kentucky One Stop portal, a website operated by the Secretary of State’s office to help people register and operate a business in the commonwealth.

Griffith says the Secretary should be a greater advocate for small, mom-and-pop businesses as well as non-profit organizations. Belcher says he would also work to protect the intellectual property of Kentucky companies, especially those that do business overseas.

Sebesta says he will make all of the Secretary’s mail and email communications public. He also wants to track all official duties of the governor’s office, which he says the Kentucky Constitution directs the Secretary of State to do.

“This means that I will publish everything in the governor’s office – all of it,” says Sebesta. “There will be no more secret deals, there will be no more lists of blacked-out donors.”

Henry says cybersecurity would be a top priority for her. She also wants to promote the Kentucky Land Office, managed by the Secretary of State. She says the land-grant documents preserved there can be better used to inform Kentuckians about their history.

The Republican Candidates
Michael Adams is a native of McCracken County and a graduate of the University of Louisville and Harvard Law School. He worked for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, Gov. Ernie Fletcher, and the U.S. Department of Justice under President George W. Bush. He operates an election law practice that assists Republican candidates nationwide, and he was member of the Kentucky Board of Elections.

Andrew English was on active duty for the U.S. Navy for six years, including service in the Persian Gulf, and is now a Lt. Commander in the Navy Reserves. He has degrees from Hofstra University and the College of William and Mary. He formerly served as General Counsel for the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. He lives in his native Oldham County.

Stephen Knipper received a political science degree from Northern Kentucky University and has professional certifications in business analysis, project management, and information technology. He worked in cybersecurity before becoming Chief of Staff for Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton. Knipper also served on the Erlanger City Council and was the GOP nominee for Secretary of State in 2015.

Carl Nett left Jefferson County after the 9/11 attacks to join the U.S. Secret Service in the Dignitary and the Presidential Protective Divisions. In 2008 he became a CIA contractor in Afghanistan, developing intelligence against al Qaeda and the Taliban. He later worked at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the Pentagon. He was raised in Louisville and in Nelson and Hardin counties.

Nett made headlines last spring for a Tweet that implied he wanted to use U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (KY-3) for target practice. The Tweet came in response to Yarmuth touting his F rating from the NRA. Both Republicans and Democrats denounced the Tweet. Nett contends he did not threaten the Louisville Democrat in any way, however he apologized to the Congressman and deleted the message from his Twitter feed. He says he was never arrested or charged in the matter.

Voter Registration and Identification
The Republican candidates argue that Kentucky should enact a photo ID requirement for all voters and purge registration rolls of inactive or unqualified voters.

“When you have bad voter rolls and no photo ID law, that is a recipe for disaster,” says English. “That is something the next Secretary of State is going to have to clean up.”

English says 48 Kentucky counties have more registered voters than living residents. To address inaccuracies in the voting rolls, he wants to employ a purge method used by the state of Ohio, which was upheld by a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year. If an Ohio resident does not vote for two years, they receive a prepaid return postcard asking them to verify that they still live at that address. If the individual fails to return the card and does not vote for four more years, they are removed from the voting rolls.

As for voter identification, English wants to emulate the state of Indiana, which requires a current, government-issued photo ID. (Indiana issues free photo ID cards to those who request them.)

Voter fraud is already occurring in the commonwealth, according to Nett. He also endorses the Indiana photo ID model, but says he prefers a modified version of the Ohio purge strategy. He says if a Kentuckian does not vote for eight years, they would receive a prepaid return mailing. If the individual fails to respond to the mailing and does not vote for two more years, they would be purged from the voter database.

“Whether that’s because they moved out of state, or they never existed, or they’re deceased, or they’re illegal aliens,” says Nett, “that is, I think, the most effective way that’s constitutional to purge the voter rolls.”

Adams also endorses the Indiana photo ID plan (which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008). As for cleaning up voting rolls, he says Kentucky doesn’t need the Ohio model.

“We already have a law, we just need to enforce the law that we have.” says Adams. “The current law allows the counties to do their own purging, if they get permission from the Secretary of State and the State Board of Elections. So that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Adams also wants to extend the period of time people can register to vote, lengthen the hours that polls are open on election days, and make voting by mail easier. But he opposes automatic voter registration, which he says leads to illegal people voting and lower voter turnouts.

“We ought to have a fair and neutral set of laws,” says Adams. “I don’t want laws that favor Republicans or favor Democrats.”

Knipper supports photo ID requirements and clean voter rolls. He says voter turnout has improved after Ohio implemented its purging system.

“The registration rolls went down, of course, because they removed people, but participation rate went up,” says Knipper. “Why? Because from a Republican standpoint or a conservative standpoint, when you feel like your vote counts, you want to go out and vote more, and that’s exactly what they’re experiencing in Ohio.”

Knipper says he also wants to ensure that voter registration data is protected from hackers. He says it’s too easy for people’s lives to be destroyed if their personal data is stolen. Knipper opposes automatic registration, but he wants to use technology to speed the voting process at the polls.

Additional Voting Issues
President Donald Trump created a voter fraud commission in 2017 to investigate claims that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election. That commission requested voter registration data from all states. But current Kentucky Secretary of State Grimes along with secretaries in other states refused to submit voter information to the group.

Adams and English say they would have complied with the commission’s request. Knipper says he probably would have supplied the data, depending on how the commission wanted to use it.

The four Republicans also say they support the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census. They say an accurate count of legal residents is vital to ensuring states have the proper number of representatives in Congress, especially ahead of the next redistricting process.

“This is not about suppression, this is about equal protection under the law,” says Nett. “That equal protection should apply to U.S. citizens, not to foreign nationals.”

Nett, Knipper, and Adams say voting rights should be restored to non-violent felons under certain circumstances. English says a blanket restoration of voting rights for those offenders would be unfair to crime victims. Instead he supports existing law that allows the governor to restore voting rights on a case-by-case basis.

Business Services and Other Priorities
With low energy prices and quality transportation hubs, Kentucky should be growing, says English. Instead he notes that the state is losing population. He says the Secretary of State can help reverse that trend.

“Kentucky should be the absolute jewel and envy of our nation, and people should be moving here in droves,” says English. “The Secretary of State needs to use that bully pulpit to get out there and preach that Kentucky is where you need… to start your business.”

English, Nett, and Knipper say Kentucky One Stop needs to be updated with an improved interface to better serve business people and entrepreneurs. Knipper says he also wants to make the Secretary of State a more active part of the state’s economic development team, and he wants the office to issue business licenses faster.

“If you’re running a business, the last thing you want to worry about is am I getting all Kentucky’s bureaucratic [paperwork] and red tape under control,” says Knipper. “Treat the people who are bringing their businesses to Kentucky with respect.”

Nett says he would promote civic engagement among Kentucky’s youth. He wants children from first grade through high school to be trained in the U.S. Constitution. He says once they graduate they will be better citizens and more engaged in the electoral process.

Kentucky Tonight‘s election preview programs continue on Monday, April 15 at 8 p.m. with the Republican candidates for state Attorney General.