At first, Kentucky’s bipartisan election changes happened because the law and the pandemic gave the parties no choice.
According to Kentucky law, the secretary of state and the governor—Republican Michael Adams and Democrat Andy Beshear, respectively—were the two people with the authority to postpone an election due to an emergency.
“The law says if the secretary of state recommends it, the governor can do it,” Adams says. “But you basically both have to turn the key.”
With the pandemic bearing down in March 2020, Adams says he and Beshear agreed to delay the election for five weeks—the maximum allowed under law—to buy time to decide next steps.
With a June primary coming up, they quickly realized the pandemic’s massive impact would require other changes to the way that election and the general election would be run, and they got bipartisan support from the Legislature.
“Had it not been for that bipartisan agreement early on, Lord knows what (would have) happened in our election,” Adams says.
The first order of business was to give people more time to vote. Kentucky had among the strictest voting rules in the country. Polls were only open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on election day. Voters could obtain absentee ballots if they could prove they met a narrow set of reasons, but few ever tried.
For the June primary, the state had staffers quickly put together an online portal where voters could request a ballot, get it in the mail, and deliver it to voting centers as early as three weeks before election day. The system even allowed them to track their ballot through the process.
That was a big hit with voters: 75% cast absentee ballots.
In addition, the state had instituted a signature curing process, which means that if a ballot signature did not look like the one on file, the voter would be contacted to confirm their ballot. Adam says that process resulted in far fewer “spoiled” ballots that couldn’t be counted because the signature couldn’t be confirmed.
Make the Changes Permanent?
Adams calls the 2020 primary and general elections “flawless,” and others agree. Plus, the turnout was high: Nearly 195,000 more people cast ballots compared with the 2016 presidential election. Then the question became: Should the state make any of those changes permanent?
Democrats wanted to keep the extended early voting period and expand access with mail-in ballots. Republicans were still wary; they thought the most secure approach would be to return to a single day of voting.
Adams came up with a theme that caught on: Make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.
“We decided that we did not want to fight out battles in the legislation. We wanted to get what we could to strengthen the integrity and expand voting.”
—Kentucky Rep. Jennifer Decker
Freshman Rep. Jennifer Decker, a Republican, was on board with that. She liked that early voting increased turnout. And she came to see that the measures could be implemented with no threat to security. House leadership asked her to carry a bill to address the pandemic changes.
“We needed to involve every professional elections official in our state to make sure that we were on target and that they would support this legislation,” Decker says. “We felt it had the best chance to succeed if we had heard from all stakeholders.”
Decker invited each of the state’s 120 county clerks—a bipartisan group itself—and other stakeholders to weigh in, to share their elections wish list. Adams and the governor’s office were closely involved, too. Decker was insistent that only the ideas that found consensus would be in the bill.
“We decided that we did not want to fight out battles in the legislation. We wanted to get what we could to strengthen the integrity and expand voting,” Decker says. “The other matters that certain interest groups wanted, they could do in separate legislation, either that year or in future years.”
By the time the bill was passed in the House, it added early voting at vote centers on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday before an election. Decker says those days saw the most voting in the pandemic, even when voters were allowed to cast ballots much earlier. As for absentee ballots, voters still need a reason to obtain one, but they can vote up to 10 days before in-person voting begins.
Too Much or Not Enough
Decker says the three days weren’t enough for some legislators and too much for others. She recalls spending two hours answering questions when she presented it in the Senate from Republicans who were worried it wouldn’t be secure. She reminded them of the broad support from election officials and the near unanimous support in the House.
While things unfolded in the Statehouse, Adams did what he could to educate voters about the changes. He reminded them that the state had four-day voting periods in the 1700s and early 1800s to give people in rural areas time to travel to vote.
“I wanted to make the point that this is something that the founding fathers came up with. This isn't some radical idea that’s brand new and untested,” Adams says.
In the end, Democrats got behind the bill because, if it wasn’t all they wanted, it still created more access to polls.
“I wanted to see the rules in place for 2020 put into law. The elections worked really well. We had great participation,” says U.S. Rep. Morgan McGarvey (D), who was a state senator at the time. “And by the way,” he adds with a chuckle, “my party lost, so you know I’m not saying this for some selfish reason.”
He notes that some states revised voting to become more restrictive after the 2020 election, but even then, they were still less restrictive than Kentucky’s new rules. But he believed the bill at hand was the best Democrats could get.
“And so, when the Legislature came back in, in 2021, I was really pleased that the reaction to 2020 was to expand voting in Kentucky,” McGarvey says.
Adams says those two ideas—access to voting and security of the vote—are not opposed, even though the parties have squared off about it in other states.
“The Democrats love the access part, and the Republicans love the security part, so both sides got what they wanted,” he says.
Adams says it was particularly important that the process started with the cooperation between him and the Democratic governor.
“I do think it was good overall for public confidence in the election to have a D and an R at the table together working it out, appearing jointly at press conferences, because that meant that it was unlikely that one side would claim the other side was gonna rig the rules,” Adams says. “The Democrats saw the governor, and the Republicans saw me. And so, both sides thought, ‘Well, this must be fair because my guy’s at the table, right?’”
Senior editor Kelley Griffin is the host of NCSL’s “Across the Aisle” podcast.