A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Jim Waters: Bipartisan effort by Adams, Beshear turns pandemic lemons into legislative lemonade

A new voting law codifying some of the temporary measures taken mid-pandemic by Republican Secretary of State Adams, the state’s chief election officer, and supported by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear represent a good-faith effort to take bipartisan advantage of COVID-19 to modernize Kentucky’s voting laws in ways that address concerns of both the political left and right.

While this column has bemoaned low voter turnouts for years, Kentucky’s political left has long assailed the commonwealth’s lack of early voting and suffocative access to – and cumbersome process for submitting – absentee ballots.

The fact that Kentucky had more than 2 million vote for the first time in the commonwealth’s history – all while Adams and Beshear agreed on a plan to exercise temporary pandemic-driven emergency powers, including three weeks of early in-person voting and greater access to absentee ballots – shows a hard-to-ignore connection between expanded voting opportunities and increased participation in this most important of civic responsibilities.

Jim Waters

While Adams accepted that the power exercised during the pandemic was temporary – “I turned back into a pumpkin” he joked during a recent online event hosted by the Bluegrass Institute – it also presented an opportunity to make permanent those provisional policies in legislation which had wide political support and strengthened our democracy in the form of a record turnout during COVID-19.

More people going to the polls offers a better chance of electing officeholders who truly – and more fully – represent their districts’ constituencies and concerns. 

“We in America do not have government by the majority,” Thomas Jefferson said. “We have government by the majority who participate.”

Among those temporary-now-permanent policies included in the final version of House Bill 574 shepherded through the 2021 General Assembly by freshman Rep. Jennifer Decker, a Shelbyville Republican, and supported by her former boss, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, is to provide three days of early in-person voting, including the Saturday before Election Day, thus increasing participation by some working people for whom getting to the polls on a weekday discourages participation.

As Adams noted in his online comments, one-day voting is “a fairly modern idea” considering America’s first 11 presidents – including Jefferson – were elected “under a system of early voting.”

Yet Adams also points out that the new legislation includes elements those concerned about security can support, including a statewide transition to universal paper ballots making meaningful recounts possible, enhancing election officials’ ability to remove nonresidents – including the deceased – from voter rolls and penalizing collection of absentee ballots by third-party collectors known as “ballot harvesting.”

As with most productive legislation, HB 574, which passed during the session on 93-4 and 33-3 votes in the state House and Senate, respectively, is a product of compromise, meaning neither side thought it went far enough in certain areas but that the law made enough meaningful progress to garner significant support.  

Many on the political left want more days to vote while critics of HB 574 on the right claim the current voting machines invite hacking and vote-tampering if they remain online.

It’s imperative that debate continues regarding these issues; both access and security are vital to the kind of trust voters must have in the election process.  

Still, it’s impossible to ignore the results of the 2020 election.

Some on the right believed the widely expanded temporary pandemic-driven voting policies would result in fraud during the 2020 election; the left was concerned the measures would lead to discrimination or suppress voter participation. 

I’ve seen no credible evidence that either happened.

In fact, it was just the opposite.

It’s very probable the type of modernization implemented by Adams and Beshear – early voting with strong security protocols – will offer voters confidence that Kentucky’s election policies will be better and fairer than ever.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.

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