Election Update: Absentee requests down slightly, in-person options expanded

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Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion (right), asks Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams a question concerning elections during the Interim Joint Committee on Appropriations and Revenue.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – Kentucky’s top election official is estimating $5.42 million in cost overruns associated with running November’s general election.

A state legislative committee got an update Wednesday afternoon on the upcoming general election, including everything from budget needs to expanded in-person voting options.

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Secretary of State Michael Adams testified before the Interim Joint Committee on Appropriations & Revenue, offering legislators an update on efforts to ensure a safe and successful general election.

“I know that is a lot of money, especially right now, but I believe that is a bargain for a successful presidential election held during a pandemic,” Adams said while testifying.

Adams said the overruns would have been greater without $4.5 million in federal relief aid leftover from May’s primary.

Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, asked how the estimated overruns compare to prior presidential elections.

Adams said it historically costs Kentucky $10 million to run an election. He said the extra expenses associated with the upcoming election range from $4 million to cover postage for more absentee ballots to $500,000 in miscellaneous costs, including the purchase of 1.2 million ink pens for one-time voter use.

Rep. Wilson Stone, D-Scottsville, asked when results of the general election in Kentucky would be released.

Adams forecasted Kentucky would have 75 percent to 80 percent of the votes counted on election night.

He added that results would come in quicker than during the primaries because of more in-person voting and additional processes to speed up the counting of absentee votes.

“We are not going to have final results election night,” Adams said. “They are going to be unofficial … but it will be enough for us to project some outcomes and give some finality to the candidates and voters.”

Rep. Myron Dossett, R-Pembroke, highlighted a mobile voting precinct in Hopkins County as a creative way clerks are engaging voters. Adams added other clerks plan to offer drive-through voting.

Sen. Michael J. Nemes, R-Shepherdsville, asked when voters will be notified where they can vote. Adams said he is still waiting for some of the larger counties to submit plans, but his goal is to have all voter locations finalized by Oct. 1.

McDaniel praised Adams’ efforts in recruiting younger poll workers. He said the average age of poll workers in Kenton County, where he lives, has traditionally been over 75.

“Thank you for acknowledging our success at getting younger poll workers,” Adams said. “I testified to the Interim Joint Committee on State Government last November … that we had a poll worker crisis in our state. This is not a Kentucky-unique problem or a pandemic-unique problem.”

Secretary Adams’ full remarks are below:

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, good afternoon.

Let me first observe that, over the past several months, a lot of legislators have come up to me and said, “You know, Adams, I was wrong about you.” Unfortunately, all of those legislators have been Republicans…. [laughter]

In all seriousness, Kentuckians of all political persuasions should be pleased with how we’ve run our elections this year. As I testified on July 28, in our primary election we gave voters options, we had high turnout, we had no spike in COVID-19 cases, and we had no evidence of vote fraud. Challenged by out-of-state haters, we proved them wrong and became a national success story.

My goal for the general election has been to keep what worked well and improve what didn’t. Governor Beshear agreed with this goal and we spent about a month working through details. The template plan we worked off of came from a bipartisan group of county clerks and members of the State Board of Elections.

To be sure, the final agreement helps Democrats. It also helps Republicans. It also helps Independents, Libertarians and any other voter who wants to participate safely in this election.

I testified in July about what I thought we’d end up doing for November, and that’s pretty much what we have done. I promised I would be mindful of the virus, and I have been. Nevertheless, the changes made for the general election are aimed at both accommodating the far higher voter turnout to be expected for a general election, and also at getting us, not back to normal, but closer to normal.

Here’s what differs from the primary election plan.

First, we are scaling back absentee voting somewhat. Rather than a no-excuse posture, and daily encouragement from the Governor and me that voters vote by absentee ballot if they can, as we did in the primary, we are encouraging absentee balloting for those who need it. Any voter of an age or health condition, or in contact with a person of an age or health condition, deemed to be at-risk is enabled to, and encouraged to, vote absentee. The same portal is there, govoteky.com. At that website you can register to vote, you can update your voter information, you can apply for an absentee ballot, you can track that absentee ballot electronically, and you can even volunteer to be a poll worker, which we really need right now.

Let me put absentee balloting in perspective. As I testified in July, generally 98% of Kentucky voters vote in person on one day in a 12-hour span, and only 2% vote absentee. In the primary, about 75% voted absentee. That was the right thing at the time, but although that worked with a voter turnout of 29%, it could be disastrous if three-quarters of general election voters voted absentee. In November we expect a 72% turnout, two-and-a-half times the primary turnout. We can’t handle two-and-a-half times the number of absentee ballots we had in the primary. Our system is not designed for that.

I’m pleased to say that, as of yesterday, we’ve received 321,000 requests for absentee ballots. That actually is about 80,000 ballot requests under where we were at this point in the primary, and this is for a general election with two-and-a-half times the turnout. Again, absentee balloting is a good thing, but we don’t want too much of a good thing, especially as we’ve proved that we can safely vote in-person.

That takes me to the next change from the primary: far more robust in-person voting opportunities, in two respects. First, following two weeks of early in-person voting in the primary, which received rave reviews from county clerks and from voters, we’ll have three weeks of early voting in the general election. This is no-excuse necessary, no-appointment necessary, in-person early voting. I hear from Republicans every day that they want to vote in-person. I hear that from Democratic constituencies too. To help ensure we don’t overload the circuits on November 3rd, we’ll have early voting all day on weekdays and even a minimum of half-day Saturday hours for in-person voting starting October 13th.

As for November 3rd, we will have many more voting locations than we had on June 23rd. Another change made for November is now, unlike in the primary, the Governor and I get veto power over county plans. So far, I’ve approved 48 county plans. Of these 48 county plans I’ve approved, only 1 county has only 1 voting location for November 3rd. That is Nicholas County, which pre-pandemic had 2 voting locations for Election Day. From 2 to 1, that’s not unreasonable.

Some counties have managed to reopen every single precinct. I want to give special recognition to these county clerks: Jim Luersen in Campbell, Naomi Jones in Fulton, Charlotte Willis in Grayson, Duck Moore in Jackson, Carol Eaton in McLean, Krystal Chapman in Menifee, Leslie Cunningham in Todd, Tina Browning in Trimble, Heather Piercy in Wayne. To be clear, this will not be possible everywhere, either because of insufficient poll workers or insufficient locations available that can allow for social distancing. But we have made great strides to facilitate in-person voting on November 3rd. My staff deserve some of the credit, by launching a poll worker volunteer portal at govoteky.com, which on its own has produced 4,000+ volunteers of the 15,000 poll workers it takes to run an election day operation. We also launched a partnership with Kentucky’s craft brewers, who put “SOS From Your SOS” PSA labels on their beer cans and bottles to spread the word and direct volunteers to our portal. Late last week, we announced that the Kentucky Bar Association will award CLE (continuing legal education) to attorneys who volunteer as poll workers and take the necessary training.

All this is good news, but it brings us to the question of, what does all this cost, and how do we pay for it?

There’s a lot of credit to go around for how well our elections have gone this year, but let’s acknowledge that Congress really stepped up and has paid the vast majority of our costs. We’ve done our best to use those funds efficiently, and save some for November. Here’s where we are.

First, following the primary we had about $2 million left in Help America Vote Act dollars earmarked for election equipment upgrades, and $2.5 million left in CARES Act funding which is much more flexible. So, and these are round numbers, $4.5 million.

Here’s our budget:

  • $4 million for absentee ballot postage – some of this is for reimbursement to counties for mailing out ballots, and some of this is for the return postage paid by the State Board of Elections.
  • $2.2 million for additional county staffing – our county clerks need manpower to facilitate absentee ballot processing.
  • $2 million for election equipment – this can be paid out of earmarked HAVA funds, but must be matched in part by county governments. KACO has helpfully offered low-cost financing to assist with this. Upgrading equipment is a long-term investment with a big benefit: it transitions us away from old-style election machines to scanners processing paper ballots. Paper ballots mean we have a paper trail, which voters appreciate.
  • $40,000 for a State Board of Elections call center, to take some pressure off our county clerks’ phone lines.
  • $1 million for public service announcements – relatively speaking, this is a luxury, but just barely. The better we can inform voters about changes – about how to vote absentee without spoiling their ballots, about where to vote in person – the more successful election we’ll have.
  • $500,000 for miscellaneous costs – one example here is we’ve bought 1.2 million ink pens for one-time voter use.

Add this up and you get $9.74 million. Subtract the $4.5 million carryover and that leaves $5.24 million. I know that’s a lot of money, especially right now, but I believe that’s a bargain for a successful presidential election held during a pandemic. Thanks for your invitation today and I’m happy to take any questions you have.