In the 2015 elections for governor and other statewide offices, only 30 percent of registered voters actually showed up at the polls.
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes says that “abysmal” voter turnout simply isn’t good for the commonwealth.
“It was a minority of people that determined who is holding statewide office and, importantly, who is sitting in judgeship,” Grimes says. “That trend is something that we have to work to reverse.”
In her second term as Secretary of State, Grimes is continuing to push for greater voter participation by making the balloting process easier and open to more citizens. The Democrat appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss some of the successes and failures she’s had with her efforts so far.
Grimes’s first step to making the voting process easier was to make voter registration more convenient. In 2014 her office created a website that Kentucky’s active-duty military service members deployed abroad as well as citizens living overseas could use to register to vote and request absentee ballots.
Then in March of 2016, Grimes launched Govoteky.com to offer online voter registration any Kentuckian. To date Grimes says more than 100,000 people have used the portal to register to vote. The secretary adds that she’s pleased with how many younger people have used the site sign up to vote for the first time.
The website also allows voters to check their registration information to make sure it’s correct, and to make any needed updates. Other features of the portal include an option to have driving directions to your polling place sent to your smart phone.
Now that 3.3 million Kentuckians are registered to vote, the trick is to get more of them to actually cast ballots on election days.
“My hope would be that if we offer the people of Kentucky the right tools, then we will see to the turnout increase,” Grimes says. “Early voting is, I believe, the next step that we need to take.”
Early Voting for All
Grimes says 37 states already allow some form of early voting either by mail or in person, or enable people to vote by absentee ballot without an excuse. But the secretary has only had modest success in her efforts to bring early voting to the commonwealth.
In the 2017 General Assembly session, lawmakers approved a bill that gives some Kentuckians an early voting option. Grimes explains that under House Bill 319, individuals who are elderly, disabled, or have health problems can now vote in person at their county clerk’s office in the days prior to election day. Previously those individuals would have to vote by absentee ballot, which they can still do if they so choose.
(HB 319 also changes how local-option elections are conducted. Grimes says those requesting a special election, such as a local wet-dry vote, will now have to pay the costs of conducting that ballot if they wish to have it outside of a regularly scheduled election day. She says county clerks were being inundated with local option requests, and were having difficulty paying to conduct the special elections.)
But Grimes has been stymied in her efforts to make early voting an option for all Kentuckians. Voters in the commonwealth already have the ability to vote by absentee ballot, but they must provide an excuse as to why they cannot vote in person on election day. Grimes says she simply wants to remove the need for an excuse so that any person could vote by absentee ballot or visit their county clerk’s office anytime within the 10 days before election day to cast a ballot in person.
The Kentucky County Clerk’s Association has opposed early voting legislation, fearing it would unduly burden staffs and budgets at local clerks’ offices. Grimes says her proposal doesn’t do that.
“It wouldn’t require additional hours, additional manpower, [or] additional days,” Grimes says. “We would be doing it on the same days that we are already offering in-person absentee voting.”
Some critics of early voting contend it may favor one party over another. Both red and blue states offer early voting options, and Grimes notes that Tennessee’s Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, has testified in favor of early voting before Kentucky lawmakers.
Ballot Access for Former Felons
Grimes also advocates for the automatic restoration of voting rights for certain non-violent felons who have completed their sentences and paroles. She says some 200,000 Kentuckians, many of them African American, no longer have the right to vote because of some crime they committed in their past.
“They’ve paid their debt to society,” Grimes says. “Why are we going to ask them to pay taxes, to be great citizens, but not have a voice?”
The secretary says she’s perplexed why neither legislative chamber heard a voting-rights restoration bill this year, especially since Gov. Matt Bevin, House Speaker Jeff Hoover (R-Jamestown), and Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) all support the concept, she says. Grimes notes that such legislation has passed the state House of Representatives in previous years when Democrats were in the majority.
Kentucky does allow for restoration of voting rights for ex-felons by approval of the governor. Grimes says her office has processed only 50 such requests during Gov. Bevin’s tenure.
Ex-felons in 38 states receive some form of automatic restoration of voting rights upon completion of their sentences. Some states mandate a waiting period before rights are restored. Kentucky lawmakers have discussed a five-year waiting period to ensure that the individual doesn’t re-offend. Grimes opposes that idea.
“When we’re talking about the right to vote, I don’t think that we need legislators continuing to act like juries,” says Grimes. “These folks have faced a jury of their peers, they have served the time required of them by a jury or a judge, they have gone through probationary periods. I don’t think we need to add any additional restrictions when what we are talking about here is the essence of them being able to have their full voice back.”
Her Political Future
After the Republican electoral gains in recent years, Grimes and Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear are the only Democrats holding statewide office. Some had speculated that Grimes might run for congress against U.S. Rep. Andy Barr (KY-6), but the secretary says she will not be a candidate in 2018.
Grimes says she’s not yet decided what she may do in 2019, when her term as Secretary of State comes to an end. She declines to say whether she might run for governor that year, or try another U.S. Senate bid in 2020.
Until then Grimes says she will continue to push for more voter participation through legislation and her own speaking tour. She’s been conducting Civic Health Town Hall forums across the state to encourage Kentuckians to become more engaged in their communities and with the political process. “…whether it’s in public life or private life, people of this state are going to continue to see me to speak up,” Grimes says.