Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
Secretary of State Michael Adams is excited about House Bill 574, the new election reform bill signed into law by Governor Andy Beshear. The new law, he explained, will make permanent four changes meant to improve access for voters that were implemented in the 2020 election due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The other three are security improvements that Adams didn’t have the power to implement without legislative approval.
“There are seven main things this bill does,” he told the Times. “Four of them are things we had already done last year. Three are things I would have done but didn’t have power to do.”
The four items implemented last year, which will now be permanent, include an extended window for in-person voting, the option for county’s to create new voting sites, and changes to the absentee ballot process.
All of the changes expand access to the polls, but the first one is an extension of voting days that give voters four days to cast an in-person ballot.
“We still thought a few days of early voting was good,” Adams said, explaining that it would be crazy to limit other essential government functions to one day a year. Imagine, he said, if everyone only had one day to renew their car registration or to apply for a drivers license, and had to stand in line for hours to do so.
“I’m in the customer service business… we would never do any other government function that way,” he said. Adding that while “it took us a little while to catch up with the rest of the country,” Kentucky now joins other states that offer early voting.
Another change, he explained, is permissive language that allows counties to offer vote centers, where anyone can vote, regardless of what precinct they are registered in. One of the main forms of voter suppression is being turned away because the voter is at the wrong precinct, according to Adams. Adding a central location for voters from all precincts could help avoid this issue.
Ideally, he said, the way this will work is by adding locations, not subtracting them. So, while counties could add a central voting location, they wouldn’t approve the removal of existing voting precincts in favor of one central voting site. Rather the idea is to “add at least one location where people can vote.”
While it’s not required, it is an option that is open to counties under the new law. Several counties did this last year, for pandemic voters, he said, and found they were efficient and saved the counties money. Any changes of this sort must be pursued on the local level, however.
Another thing the state has done with the new bill is to keep the absentee ballot request portal.
“This is maybe the most important thing we’ve ever done,” Adams said.
It used to be a three step process. Now, though, voters will simply go online and in minutes their ballot request is processed.
The change also improves security, he said, as the state now requires a voter ID to get an absentee ballot. That wasn’t the case before, which meant someone else could request a ballot and vote on your behalf without the voters knowledge.
The update also allows the state to track if the ballot has been sent to the voter, if it’s been returned to the county clerk, etc.
“There was no transparency on that before,” Adams said.
This change makes the state accountable for lost or misplaced ballots and allows them to see any irregularities in the process.
With the change also comes a new “cure process,” which Adams explained allows those casting an absentee ballot the opportunity to “cure” any discrepancies before submitting their ballot.
“Our law requires a signature on an absentee ballot,” Adams said. “The signature must match (the signature on the voter registration). The problem is most of our absentee voters are older, and their signatures have changed. Now, though, we have a way to catch it and prove it was them. If there is an apparent mismatch, the clerk now has to contact the voter, and give the voter a chance to ‘cure’ the mismatch.”
Adams said while up to 7.5 percent of absentee ballots were thrown out without notice in previous elections, they were able to cut that number to 3.8 percent this year, because of the new cure process. That’s even with an increased number of absentee ballots this year.
If it turns out the person submitting the absentee ballot wasn’t the registered voter, he said, the state would then have a lead on potential fraud as well.
The other three items are all related to security, but while they improve security they don’t impede the rights of anyone to vote, Adams explained.
The first change grants Adams’ office additional authority to clean up the voter roles. For instance if a voter has died, gone to prison, or moved out of state, that doesn’t mean they’ve been removed from the voter roles. There was a loophole in the existing law that made it so the state couldn’t take someone off even if they had a record they had voted in another state. The new law grants the state authority to remove these voters from the roles, which should help curb potential voter fraud.
The second security initiative banned ballot harvesting. Ballot harvesting is a process where third party groups go out and collect ballots. Voters trust these ballot harvesters to return the ballots for them to the county clerk, but sometimes they don’t. While Adams said there are “lots of conspiracy theories about vote fraud… one way you see it is like this.”
“This is how you have actual, organized fraud,” he said. “Our law didn’t allow for it, but didn’t expressly forbid it. Now we can prevent it and penalize it.”
The final change is a transition to universal paper ballots. While existing voting machines will be grandfathered in, any new voting machines purchased by the state must include a paper backup of votes. This can be in the form of a printed slip of paper displaying the votes that is collected and preserved by the court as a backup of the digital vote. Or, he said, it can be in the form of a paper scantron ballot that the voter marks and then scans into an electronic voting machine.
“It gets you to the same spot. It gets you to a piece of paper,” Adams said, which can help in case a recount is needed.
You can’t recount in the same way with an all digital system, he added. If you have an all digital system, all you are doing is asking the machine to spit out the same results again, he continued. A paper backup solves that issue.
“I don’t prescribe to conspiracy theories, but voters don’t have trepidation about paper ballots,“ he said. “They can’t be hacked. People trust them.”
While there is no hard deadline for upgrades to voting machines, counties must meet these requirements when they replace machines. Adams said he expects that, over the next decade, the state will see a changeover in all machines. He said they have also been very aggressive at pursuing and providing grant funding for replacing and upgrading voting machines.
“When I got here, 29 (counties) couldn’t process paper. Now all counties have at least one machine that can do that,” he said.
The new law enjoys broad bipartisan support too. In the House 93 out of 100 Representatives voted for the new law while, in the Senate 33 out of 38 voted in favor.
While other states have squabbled over voter reform, Adams said, “ours wasn’t controversial because we got everyone in the same room and worked it out.”
They worked to be sure access didn’t hurt security and security didn’t hurt access, he continued.
While the existing laws weren’t intentionally suppressive, Adams noted, they were outdated; that was something else they could all agree on. Kentucky’s election code hadn’t been updated since it was written in 1891, he said, so it simply didn’t cover the sort of issues that confront modern voters.
“It was long overdue for a review and a reform,” he explained.
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