If you listened only to national news outlets, or outspoken celebrities on Twitter, you might have thought Kentucky was doing everything possible to restrict voter access to the polls this primary election. The truth, as always, is a little more complicated.
Yes, election day was pushed back a month, and polling places were limited to fewer locations in most counties. This was a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and while some decisions – like limiting the number of voting locations – were both controversial and seemed counterproductive to the social distancing recommendations of the governor’s office (Why force more voters into fewer locations if you want to maintain distance between them and limit contact?), voting in the 2020 primary was actually up compared to most years.
More than 30 percent of Kentucky’s registered voters appear to have cast a ballot in this year’s election, with projections as high as 1.1 million of the state’s 3.4 million registered voters participating either in person or by mail-in absentee ballot. These numbers beat Kentucky’s previous high, in the 2008 primary election, when just over 922,000 of the, at the time, 2.8 million registered voters turned out.
In Louisville long lines at the city’s only polling place drew a lot of attention, and criticisms that the city and state were disenfranchising the city’s voters – especially minority voters. There is probably some valid criticism to be made about limiting the number of in-person voting locations. Long lines and associated long waits do tend to discourage some voters, especially poor and working class voters who might have a limited amount of time to cast a ballot before returning to work or picking up children from a babysitter or daycare center. It’s worth taking that criticism to heart, and looking at ways to improve.
Mail-in ballots, too, have caused some issues, especially for county clerks’ offices. Because voters had until the day of the election to mark and drop their ballots in the mail, county clerks were stuck reporting only partial results on election day. While we usually get a pretty accurate count on election night, minus a few absentee ballots, this year we likely won’t have results until this week as county employees check the postmark on ballots and add their totals to the already tallied early mail-in and election night votes. For a society that has gotten used to the immediacy of electronically tabulated ballots and watching the votes roll in on a scrolling ticker that is regularly refreshed throughout the evening on election night, the waiting may indeed be the hardest part.
But, by and large, Kentucky’s plan for handling voting during a pandemic – a plan that had the bipartisan support of a Democratic governor and a Republican secretary of state – has produced stellar returns, as evidenced by the number of mail-in ballots requested and percentage of votes recorded. Both Governor Beshear and Secretary Adams have heard the criticism too, and said they want more polling places open for the general election.
Nothing is ever perfect, but we think criticism of Kentucky’s primary voting plans were largely overblown. The idea that voters were intentionally disenfranchised fits neither the facts nor the agenda of the governor, whose party tends to have more support among the very populations they are accused of disenfranchising.
There are some changes we’d like to see in Kentucky’s voting system. The ability to request a mail-in ballot, even if you aren’t a Kentuckian currently residing out of state, is one change we’d like to see made permanent. Early in-person voting, like many other states allow, is something else we’d like to see Kentucky consider. Both of these would make voting easier, and would likely improve voter turn-out for both primary and general elections, as well as off year elections when voting numbers tend to plummet. There’s definitely room for improvement. But we can’t lend any credence to the theory that Kentucky purposely suppressed voting in the state’s primary. The numbers just don’t support that contention.