- This week, Kentucky showed how officials, with the right planning and coordination, can run a largely successful election with high turnout during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- In the days before, dozens of prominent national figures with millions of followers on social media charged that Kentucky was committing voter suppression by having far fewer polling places than normal.
- Much of the national commentary raised alarms over only one physical in-person vote center in Jefferson County, which has over 600,000 registered voters, and accused the state of voter suppression.
- The reality, however, was much more nuanced. Thanks to Kentucky massively expanding access to absentee and early voting, the state saw record turnout and not the hours-long lines across the state that many predicted.
- An election scholar called for the state to delay implementating a law that requires voters to bring a photo ID to the polls, saying this “would truly lead to voter suppression.”
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All eyes were on Kentucky as it held in-person voting for its June 23 presidential and congressional primary elections after a weekend of influential figures claiming the state’s leaders committing nefarious voter suppression.
In-person voting wasn’t perfect, and there were some logistical hiccups, But thanks to a number of measures top officials implemented to make voting easier, Kentucky surpassed expectations and saw record turnout.
While there are still absentee ballots left to be counted, Kentucky is on track to smash its previous voter turnout record for a primary election set in the 2008 primary election, where 922,000 voters cast ballots. As of Friday morning, 731,505 absentee ballots had been returned, making up 84% of those sent to voters, in addition to over 271,000 who voted in person, the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office and Louisville Courier-Journal reported.
Before the election, a number of prominent celebrities and athletes including Ava Duvernay, Ellen Degeneres, and Jennifer Lawrence, athletes like LeBron James, and national political figures including Hillary Clinton, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar took to social media to accuse Kentucky of using the COVID-19 pandemic to engage in racist voter suppression by slashing in-person places from the usual 3,700 per election to just 200.
In particular, national figures and commentators seized on the statistic that on election day there would be just one in-person vote center in Jefferson County, which has over 600,000 registered voters and is home to half the state’s Black citizens.
While that fact caught fire on the Internet and fed accusations of suppression, many of the posts expressing concern didn’t reflect the steps officials took to expand voting options and avoid the disaster scenario many predicted.
“The reality on the ground on Tuesday was pretty good,” University of Kentucky law professor and election scholar Josh Douglas concluded in a Thursday op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader. “Not perfect. Not ideal. But overall, the election was a qualified success.”
Beth Thorpe, a Democratic strategist and communications chairwoman for the Louisville Democratic Party, told Insider in a Thursday interview that everyone involved in Tuesday’s elections worked incredibly hard to make it a success.
She said that the outcry over voter suppression was due to a combination of the high interest in the competitive Democratic primary for US Senate between Amy McGrath and Charles Booker, and heightened national concern over voter disenfranchisement in the wake of Georgia’s disastrous June 9 election.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that people are interested in our election,” she said. “And everyone wanted to come to our rescue. And I get why they did it, because we’ve seen some really bad things happen. But I think it goes to show that if there’s a vacuum of information, and it’s not clear who’s doing the messaging…and you can get a story out that you can’t get a handle on.”
Top officials worked across the aisle to expand mail-in and early voting
Like most states who have held elections in the coronavirus era, Kentucky experienced a shortage of available poll-workers willing to work at in-person and had to significantly cut down polling places as a result. In most states, poll-workers are older retirees who are especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
In anticipation of the lack of poll workers, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Kentucky’s top election official, Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams struck a bipartisan agreement to allow voters to vote absentee and vote early in-person without an excuse for June’s election. Previously, Kentucky had extremely limited early voting and required voters to have an excuse in order to do either.
Shortly after becoming Governor, Beshear also signed an executive order allowing hundreds of thousands of people with felony convictions who were previously disenfranchised to vote.
In Jefferson County, the site of the single polling location, over 222,000 voters had either requested absentee ballots or voted early by Monday, according to Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Joe Sonka.
Another important detail that was lost in the fray was that “one polling place” wasn’t the size of the typical high school gym, church basement, or American Legion hall most Americans are used to voting in.
Several separate polling places were located inside the Kentucky Exposition Center, an enormous 1.3 million square foot convention center on the site of the state’s fairgrounds. The design of the center allowed for there to be 18 separate lines to vote, hundreds of individual voting booths, and multiple entrances and exits to enable social distancing.
Over the weekend, local reporters and experts, including Douglas, Sonka, and many of his colleagues, spent considerable time adding legal context and breaking down the absentee and early voting numbers to explain that no, 600,000 voters would not be crowded into one tiny polling location. (Sonka began responding to misleading tweets about Kentucky’s election with GIFs of David Rose, the oft-exasperated character in the Canadian sitcom Schitt’s Creek).
Very few of the posts celebrities and national figures with major social media followings who expressed concern about the dearth of polling locations included a similar level of context.
“We’ve had mail-in voting for the first time in our history… we’ve had no-excuse early voting for the first time in our history…we’ve had 175,000 people have their voting rights restored, which I think is the opposite of voter suppression,” Beshear said at a Monday press conference when asked to respond to the criticism on social media. “That doesn’t fit in Twitter very easily, and I get that.”
Despite the fears of suppression and hours-long lines in Louisville, in-person voting on election day mostly went smoothly at the Exposition Center, local outlets including the Courier-Journal reported.
“The voting inside was fabulous. It was huge, it had tons of room, it had big exhibition halls, super airy, lots of space,” Thorpe said of the Expo Center. “They were really able to keep their little desks separate.”
But while the size and scale of the Expo Center precluded the onerously long waits and lines that some predicted, the single location created different logistical difficulties, including traffic on the expressway on the way to the area and a somewhat confusing parking system, with Thorpe describing it as a “convoluted place to get in.”
And towards the end of the voting day, a dramatic scene unfolded when voters rushed to the Expo Center to get into a line inside the buildings before polls closed at 6 p.m.
Officials shut the door to people trying to get into the building, creating a harrowing scenario of voters banging on the doors of the center hoping to get in. A last-minute injunction from a state judge in response to an emergency motion from Booker’s campaign extended voting to 6:30 p.m.
—Matt Mencarini (@MattMencarini) June 23, 2020
“The rules were not made to scale up to the system,” said Thorpe, who was present at the Exposition Center at 6 p.m., and tried to help people who were parking get into the building as fast as possible. “We all ran as fast as we can yelling to people how much time they had to get inside. It was pretty intense. I’m still not quite over it, to be honest.”
Voters also experienced somewhat longer lines in Kentucky’s second-largest city of Lexington, where the city’s main polling location had less capacity to efficiently check in dozens of voters at a time, creating a bottleneck at the check-in desk.
Adams celebrated the overall success of Tuesday’s election in a Wednesday statement, calling on “vacuous celebrities” including “persons of supposed stature like Hillary Clinton, who clearly know better” to apologize for lobbing accusations of voter suppression.
“While in so many categories Kentucky remains near the bottom, today Kentucky is first in something – conducting elections, even under extreme circumstances, and exhibiting grace under pressure,” he said while decrying “certain people” outside the state who “aggressively pushed a false, culturally bigoted narrative that paints Kentucky as a racist backwater.”
Kentucky’s experience reveals important lessons for November
Despite the overall success of Kentucky’s election and the record turnout, local officials and experts note that Kentucky’s election revealed some of the problems states around the country will have to address by November.
“Today’s primary election went remarkably smoothly for most who made it to the polls but certainly not for all,” Richard Beliles, the Board Chairman of Common Cause Kentucky, a non-partisan grassroots organization, said in a statement. “And we don’t know how many never made it to the polls in the first place.”
Thorpe emphasized that all the election officials in the state did excellent work under difficult circumstances, and highlighted important areas for improvement.
In addition to the shortage of poll-workers, Thorpe said that officials should take steps to streamline and centralize communication around election policies, conduct more outreach on social media to educate voters unfamiliar with the process on how to vote absentee, and iron out logistical problems at polling places, like parking and access for voters with disabilities.
“People often think that voter suppression is this big, bad entity, and it can be,” Thorpe said. “But it can be much more subtle in the way we create systems and how we think about access, including things you can’t know in advance. Confusing communication to people, a clerk not being able to pick up the phone for hours, platforms that do wonky things and put up inaccurate information, all of that can be suppressing.”
Thorpe, Belies, and other advocates are encouraging Kentucky’s leaders to build on the progress they achieved in the primary and continue to expand absentee and in-person voting, including recruiting more poll workers.
“We need to recruit younger poll workers and we need to start recruiting them now,” Belies said. “The shortage of poll workers led to a shortage of polling places which made it harder for poor and disabled citizens to get to the polls. That is a shortcoming that must be addressed.”
In his op-ed, Douglas encouraged the state to continue to allow voters to cast absentee ballots and vote early in-person for weeks before November election, in addition to extending the poll closing times to close at 8 p.m. instead of 6 p.m., and delaying the implementation of a law requiring voters to bring a photo ID to the polls that the legislature passed over Beshear’s veto.
“Going back to the prior rules this November and implementing the photo ID law would truly lead to voter suppression,” he wrote. “We need to use what worked in this primary and expand upon it.”