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Kentucky surprised many in 2020 when, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials reached a bipartisan compromise expanding vote by mail and early voting access in a state that historically had some of the most restrictive voting access laws in the country.

Kentucky has continued to buck national trends ever since. Lawmakers in the Republican-dominated state codified many of the voting access expansions introduced on a temporary basis in 2020 and where prominent Republican officials have publicly and emphatically pushed back against claims of voter fraud.

Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams, whose eleventh-hour deal with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear ushered in the new election policies two years earlier, said Kentucky has proven that states can do more to get people to the polls without compromising security.

“Both sides felt like the election was fair in 2020,” Adams said. “The voters like these things, they told the legislators they liked the extra voting days, they liked the convenience of those new polling places, so there was no resistance to either side, from other sides of voters to actually making these things permanent.”

2021 legislation

More Kentuckians voted in 2020 than any previous election year. But despite that success, Adams said he wasn’t sure he could convince Republicans in the legislature to make permanent election reforms he said the state desperately needed.

“My nickname in the legislature was Benedict Adams, because I had sold them out and worked with a Democratic governor that Republicans disliked so much,” Adams said.

But as the 2021 legislative session began, Adams initiated conversations with lawmakers and found there was appetite to adopt the changes he and Beshear agreed to the year prior.

In April, Kentucky lawmakers passed legislation doing just that. The law they passed established three days of early voting, created voter services portals where people could request and track their absentee ballots and created voting centers where people could vote without being tied to polling locations in a specific precinct, among other reforms.

“No one can argue: This expands voting options in Kentucky,” said Morgan McGarvey, the Democratic minority leader in the State Senate.

“When much of the country has put in more restrictive laws, Kentucky legislators, Kentucky leaders were able to come together to stand up for democracy and to expand the opportunity for people to vote,” Gov. Andy Beshear said as he signed the bill into law on April 7.

University of Kentucky professor Joshua Douglas said lawmakers were open to the reforms for two reasons. 

About this series

This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

First, the 2020 election proved that the election reforms made sense and worked in practice. 

Second, Douglas said, Republicans continue to dominate politics in Kentucky. Republicans outnumber Democrats 30 to 8 in the state Senate, and 75 to 25 in the House. Although the state has voted Republican for many years, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by party registration for the first time in state history in 2022.

Democrats have criticized the Republican-controlled redistricting process as handing even more political control to the GOP. Republicans used their supermajority in the legislature to override a veto attempt from Behsear and pass new political maps earlier this year. Democrats have filed a lawsuit claiming the maps carve up larger, more diverse cities in Kentucky and give an unfair advantage to Republicans. That lawsuit is still ongoing and the districts will hold for the 2022 election.

“I think the Republican Party feels they’ve got such a stranglehold over most elections in the state, they feel like with the registration trends and everything that this is not a swing state,” Douglas said. “They’re not worried about losing, so they can tell their voters ‘look, our elections are fair and secure, and we’re winning.’”

Adams agreed that Republicans’ performance in recent elections helped make his case for election reform. 

“We didn’t do anything in how we ran the election to favor one party over the other, we just played it straight,” Adams said. “But (2020) was a good Republican year, they picked up seats in both houses of the legislature, so I think the fact that we had an open election system and Republicans weren’t harmed by it took some of the initial concern off the table.” 

Fraud claims, criticisms and recounts

Douglas said there’s still plenty of room for Kentucky to improve voting access. Kentucky requires an excuse to request an absentee ballot, for example. The polls  close at 6 p.m. on election day, tied with Indiana for the earliest poll closing time in the country. The voting registration deadline is 29 days before election day, a deadline Douglas said is “not necessary in this day and age.” Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., allow registration on election day.

Some members of the Kentucky Republican Party are expressing concerns about election security, mimicking false claims nationwide that the 2020 election was stolen and that expanded voting access during the pandemic allowed for widespread election fraud.

Republican state Sen. Adrienne Southworth took part in a “Restore Election Integrity” tour throughout Kentucky where speakers claimed the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump and called for election officials to revert to hand counting of paper ballots. 

Adams, the Kentucky County Clerk’s Association, members of the State Board of Elections and other groups denounced the tour as spreading misinformation, and Adams put up a rumor control section on the Secretary of State website.

At least six Republican candidates who lost their primary elections in May petitioned courts for a recount. Bridgette Ehly received only 32% of the vote when she challenged GOP House Speaker David Osborne in Oldham County, but said in a Facebook post that her recount effort was a chance to “take a look under the hood” of Kentucky’s ballot counting process.

“No one sees or counts our ballots, it’s left entirely to digital machines, while important election data is stored by a private company in Florida!” wrote Ehly, who added in another post that “the days of blind trust are gone.”

Unlike in other states, however, these claims of fraud are not finding much traction with Kentucky’s Republican leadership.

Courts have dismissed several recount petitions, or required the losing candidates to post expensive bonds if they want to move forward with their efforts, but Adams said the recount efforts are a frivolous waste of state resources that could plant seeds of doubt in Kentucky’s election integrity.

“I have one of my staff lawyers almost literally every single day dealing with one of these cases around the state,” Adams said. “It’s getting to be a real drain on our office and the clerks.”

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Jared Bennett is a deputy editor and reporter covering criminal justice and economic justice for the...