Adams, Beshear, lawmakers talk November elections

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP/WTVQ) — Kentucky‘s Republican secretary of state said Tuesday he’ll press to make more polling places available and count ballots faster in the November general election than in last month’s primary.

Secretary of State Michael Adams told lawmakers that mail-in absentee and early in-person voting worked well in the state’s unprecedented June primary. He said he hopes to make recommendations to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in early August on plans for conducting the general election amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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When asked about elections during his daily briefing Tuesday, Beshear said he is awaiting Adams’ plan but hoped it would be more than just a “scaled back” version of the June 23 primary.

“I think we ought to have no-excuse early voting” and widespread mail-in and absentee voting along with “more in-person locations,” Beshear said, noting the success of the June election and increased participation.

Saying coronavirus conditions are “worse now than they were then, why would we back off of it,” he added, stressing he would wait to see Adams’ plan.”

During testimony before a legislative committee Tuesday, Adams said it would be difficult to handle absentee ballots the same way it did during the primaries “in all respects.”

Adams will work with Beshear’s office on planning how Kentucky conducts its November election — when voters will make their choices for offices spanning from the state legislature to the White House.

Kentucky has a high-stakes U.S. Senate race pitting Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Amy McGrath. Adams won bipartisan praise from lawmakers Tuesday for how he and Beshear bridged their partisan gap to set the rules for the primary.

Adams said he hopes to avoid a weeklong wait for results like the one that occurred after the primary. Voters also can expect to have more Election Day polling locations available in November, he said.

He also said absentee voting will remain a “big component” of the general election, but stopped short of endorsing the widespread mail-in absentee voting that occurred for the primary.

“It may be possible to expand absentee voting somewhat beyond the current groups of voters who qualify, but personally I’m dubious that we can fully replicate the primary election plan in all respects,” Adams said.

Local election offices and post offices could be overwhelmed by huge volumes of absentee ballots for an expected high-turnout general election if the same rules apply as for the primary, he said.

A group of voting rights advocates recently filed a lawsuit in Kentucky in an attempt to keep expanded absentee voting through the November election.

Adams said he hopes to submit his election recommendations to Beshear as soon as next week, saying an early bipartisan agreement will benefit voters and candidates.

“The sooner we have this all in place, the sooner we can get started explaining this to everybody,” Adams said.

In June, Kentucky had its highest turnout for a primary election since 2008, despite the daunting challenges posed by the coronavirus outbreak. The state resorted to a combination of mail-in absentee ballots, early in-person voting and in-person Election Day voting in June.

The virus will factor into decisions again, including for absentee voting, Adams said.

Under state law, absentee voting is open to people impaired from in-person voting due to age or illness, he said. But in the age of the coronavirus, some people otherwise able to vote in-person will be reluctant to go to polling places because of their age or preexisting health conditions, he said.

While county clerks are split on whether to expand absentee voting for November, they universally support in-person early voting to help “smooth out the number of voters over a period of weeks rather than one day,” Adams said.

Early voting also is much less expensive than absentee voting, which brings considerable postage and printing costs, he said.

Adams also was pressed on how to ensure that results will be known on election night or shortly after that. Many candidates were kept in suspense for a week after the primary election.

Speeding the process on the front end should resolve delays in election results, Adams said.

For the primary, all absentee ballots had to be postmarked by primary election day and received by county clerks’ offices by the Saturday after the election to be counted.

“I think if we get the portal (for absentee ballot applications) open earlier and we get the ballots out earlier, it’s not unreasonable to expect the ballots to be returned earlier,” Adams told lawmakers. “And that will help us have Election Day results instead of a week later.”

“First, our primary election was a nationally-recognized success,” Adams said while testifying before the Interim Joint Committee on State Government. “With all the things Kentucky is at the bottom of in so many areas, today we are No. 1 in something. We had the highest turnout we have seen in many years. Most important, we kept people safe.”

While November’s plan is still being drafted, Adams said he envisions it consisting of a combination of some absentee voting; early, in-person voting; and voting on Election Day. He said he is concerned expanding absentee voting, to the extent it was done for the May primary, could overwhelm county clerks and the U.S. Postal Service. Adams said he is more comfortable with having early, in-person voting to relieve potential crowds at polls on Election Day.

“Early voting worked,” Adams said. “Our county clerks are split on whether we should expand absentee voting in November, but they universally support in-person, early voting to help smooth out the number of voters over a period of weeks, rather than one day. This is a far less expensive and labor-intensive way to conduct an election.”

Rep. Joe Graviss, D-Versailles, asked how much it will cost to hold the November election in the safest and most-efficient manner.

Adams said the state spent two-thirds of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money it received for elections on May’s primary. He said that left only $2.5 million of CARES Act money for the November general election unless Congress approves additional funds.

“Let’s be clear, this is the most expensive election Kentucky has ever had,” Adams said of the primary.

Beshear has said he thinks additional funding will be available to help pay for the November elections.

Adams said it traditionally costs between $10 million and $11 million to hold general elections in Kentucky. Adams said COVID-19 precautions would increase that cost for the upcoming general election, but he could not name a price until the added precautions had been agreed upon.

He then said that mail-in voting is the most expensive voting model.

Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, said counties needed flexibility and gave an example of how Anderson County offered drive-thru voting. Adams agreed and added that Hopkins County had mobile voting trucks.

Adams said the No. 1 complaint he received after the primary was a lack of polling locations on Election Day. He said he was exploring ways to combat that for the November election including creating a formula requiring a minimum number of polling locations based on a county’s population and geography. Adams added that there have to be enough poll workers to operate the polls.

In response to a comment from Rep. Jerry T. Miller, R-Louisville, Adams said he would like to see counties offer Saturday hours for early, in-person voting.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said he wasn’t “a fan” of early voting. He said that type of voting does not favor insurgent candidacies, underfunded candidates or less-known candidates.

“Campaigns are meant to peak on Election Day,” he said. “Everyone in this room has run elections, and the information that our campaigns share with voters is meant to peak on Election Day.”

Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, said the legislature shouldn’t be a bystander in deciding how Kentucky’s elections are conducted. He then requested the governor call a special session of the General Assembly to reform Kentucky’s election laws.

In response to a question from Minority Caucus Chair Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, Adams said he would be glad to return to the committee to update them on the November election plans.

“I’m happy to talk with anybody about it, but the longer, more bureaucratic we make the process, the later and later it is going to run,” Adams said of the time it is taking to finalize a November election plan.

Sen. Christian McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, asked Adams to appear before the September meeting of the combined House and Senate Appropriations & Revenue (A&R) Committee to testify about the costs of the upcoming election. He added that he wanted to ensure Kentucky has the necessary money to hold the election.

“The fundamental obligation we have as lawmakers is public safety and secondarily is ensuring we have safe, fair and honest elections because that is the underpinning of the entire system,” said McDaniel, the chair of the Senate A&R Committee. “That is the starting point of democracy.”