Kentucky’s Republican-controlled state legislature is on the brink of approving a new law that would make it easier for the state’s residents to vote, bucking a nationwide GOP movement to restrict ballot access in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s loss last November.
The Kentucky legislation, which the state Senate passed on Tuesday with overwhelming support from both Republicans and Democrats, would allow up to three days of early voting in future elections, and make it easier for voters to cast ballots at countywide election centers instead of at precinct-specific polling sites. The Senate bill amended a version the state House had previously passed, but the House failed to fully pass it again before adjourning Tuesday night. There are only two legislative days remaining before Kentucky’s session ends later this month, but it’s still likely that the bill will pass before that deadline, state Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey (D) said Wednesday.
The bill does not go as far as many Democrats or voting rights advocates would like, and Kentucky will still lag behind many other states that allow more days of early voting and more access to voting by mail. But at a time when GOP legislatures are targeting absentee and early voting across the country, Kentucky, where early voting had never been allowed before it was temporarily implemented for last year’s pandemic-altered elections, is pushing the other way.
“We passed a law that permanently expands voting from where it was before 2020,” McGarvey told HuffPost. “It allows more options and more days for people to vote, which is something we’ve been fighting for for years in Kentucky. I don’t think it went far enough, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.”
State lawmakers have introduced hundreds of bills to curtail ballot access this year, as Republicans have launched an “all-out assault” on voting rights and democracy after Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden last fall. The Kentucky legislation, however, is part of a wave of bills moving in statehouses nationwide that aim to do the opposite. As of February, state lawmakers had introduced at least 541 bills in 37 states that would expand ballot access and make voting easier, a drastic increase in new voting rights proposals from previous years, according to an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice.
The push to expand voting rights follows an election in which Americans enjoyed an unprecedented array of options for casting ballots, as many states implemented new voting measures in an attempt to conduct elections safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Kentucky was among the most aggressive: Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams reached a bipartisan agreement to implement early voting and no-excuse absentee voting for summer primaries last year, then struck a similar deal to extend those provisions to November’s general election as well.
Kentucky’s adoption of the changes wasn’t perfect, but it also provided voters there with options they hadn’t previously enjoyed. Before 2020, it was one of just nine states that did not allow either no-excuse absentee voting or early voting at all.
The new legislation will not allow no-excuse absentee voting in future elections. But it will require the state to host an online portal that allows voters to apply for absentee ballots if they qualify, a provision that makes Kentucky’s vote-by-mail process slightly less onerous.
The bill also includes some so-called “election security measures,” some of which Republicans argue are necessary to prevent widespread voter fraud (which did not occur in 2020 elections or any recent prior contests). Voting rights advocates argue that some of those are unnecessary, including a provision that bans third-party absentee ballot collection, which Republicans refer to as "ballot harvesting." But others, like a requirement that electronic voting machines have paper backup ballots, are considered best practices that Kentucky, which ranks near the bottom of states on overall measures of election administration, had not yet implemented.
And although Kentucky Republicans still cited fraud concerns as a reason not to go further, their decision to adopt early voting and other new measures is proof that a sober look at last year’s election can result in changes that actually improve the country’s election system and voters’ ability to participate in it at the same time.
“It doesn’t have everything I want, but it has a lot of stuff I like and not a ton of things that I hate,” said Joshua A. Douglas, a University of Kentucky law professor who has advocated for expanded voting rights in the state. “The overarching point is that voter enhancements and election security don’t need to be mutually exclusive. You can have things that achieve both goals.”
Kentuckians, like Americans more broadly, leaned on early and absentee voting en masse during the 2020 elections. Trump and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell scored huge victories in the Bluegrass State, and the GOP expanded supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, outcomes that mean the party likely feels less threatened than do the Republicans in Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Texas and other swing states where they have sought to drastically curtail voting rights.
But Republican legislatures in other deep red states have also joined the crusade to roll back voting rights, even though there is no proof that fraud occurred and little evidence that expanded options like no-excuse absentee balloting and early voting have significant partisan effects on the electorate.
Kentucky’s outlier status, both McGarvey and Douglas speculated, may be a result of the bipartisan nature of the agreement that expanded voting options during the pandemic.
Alongside Beshear, the Democratic governor, “we have a Republican secretary of state who in 2020 came up with a really good plan to allow people to vote,” McGarvey said. “It was done in a safe and effective manner. People saw it could work, and people liked it.”
Elsewhere, legislatures have sought to expand voting rights in significant ways. More than a dozen states are considering bills that would implement or expand automatic voter registration or same-day registration; such legislation has advanced in Hawaii and could soon move in Massachusetts and other states. Vermont’s Senate passed a bill this week that would allow the state to mail ballots to all registered voters in advance of each election, and Nevada’s legislature is considering a similar proposal. Connecticut lawmakers are pushing legislation to adopt early and no-excuse absentee voting, changes that Delaware, New York and more than a dozen other states could also consider this year.
Virginia, meanwhile, could move to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions during the current legislative session, and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed a new executive order restoring rights to nearly 70,000 additional Virginians this week.
Kentucky’s legislature failed to move on a similar bill that would have paved the way for as many as 200,000 people with felony convictions to regain their right to vote. But that proposal, which also has bipartisan support, could still advance next year, in time for voters to have a say on it during 2022 elections.
Most of the bills to expand voting rights are proceeding in Democratic-controlled legislatures, but lawmakers have introduced legislation that would make it easier to vote in a number of red states as well. Bipartisan legislative proposals in Mississippi and Arkansas, for instance, would bring same-day or automatic registration to those states, and the Kentucky legislation should be an example for lawmakers in similar states to follow, Douglas said, even if the Bluegrass State still has a long way to go to meet the standards other states have established.
“Kentucky is being a national leader in showing how to achieve bipartisan consensus on strong voting practices,” Douglas said. “Again, it doesn’t go as far as I would like, but it’s a really good start.”