• The Star Staff

Why Kentucky just became the only red state to expand voting rights

By Nick Corasaniti

Jennifer Decker has solid conservative credentials. A first-term Republican state lawmaker in Kentucky who used to work for Sen. Rand Paul, she represents a county that voted for Donald Trump last year by nearly 30 percentage points.

Yet at a time when many of her Republican counterparts around the country are racing to pass stringent new restrictions on voting — fueled in part by Trump’s falsehoods about the 2020 election — Decker’s first major bill swerved.

It aimed to make it easier for people to vote in the state.

Kentucky on Wednesday became the only state in the country with a Republican-controlled legislature to expand voting rights after a bitter presidential election that tested the country’s democratic institutions and elevated ballot access as an animating issue for both parties.

In a signing ceremony on Wednesday, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, hailed the bill as a bipartisan effort that cut against the push in other Republican legislatures to put up barriers to voting.

“When much of the country has put in more restrictive laws, Kentucky legislators, Kentucky leaders were able to come together to stand up for democracy and to expand the opportunity for people to vote,” Beshear said.

The reasons that Kentucky Republicans have diverged on voting rights range from the political to the logistical. For one, they had an easier sell: With sweeping new rules allowing the election to be held safely during the coronavirus pandemic, Republicans in Kentucky had one of their best cycles in years, with both Sen. Mitch McConnell and Trump easily winning in the state.

And expanding voting access in Kentucky was a low bar to clear; the state had some of the tightest voting laws in the country before 2020, with not a single day of early voting, and strict limits on absentee balloting.

The push in Kentucky and other states — including the Democratic-controlled Virginia, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii and Massachusetts — reflects an odd outcome of the pandemic: The most challenging election in nearly a century brought about expansive changes across the country to ease access to the ballot box.

“We did things a little bit differently because of COVID, and I just thought that some of that might help us going forward,” Decker said in an interview. “And election reform should not be partisan. Partisan majorities can change at any time.”

Republicans and Democrats alike in Kentucky have overwhelmingly supported and celebrated the bill, heralding it as a welcome bipartisan achievement. But voting rights advocates have been more muted, pointing to the legislation’s relatively limited scope and its mixture of measures, like the introduction of a short early voting period, as well as new restrictions heralded under the banner of election security. They caution that the proposal represents a modest improvement in a state long hostile to voting rights — a fact even conservatives have acknowledged.

“Kentucky actually had probably, until this point, the most restrictive laws in the country on voting,” said Michael Adams, the Republican secretary of state, who was the leading force behind the bill. “And that’s what we’re trying to change.”

Indeed, even with its newly expanded voting access, Kentucky’s voting rules remain comparatively stricter than those of Georgia, which recently overhauled its electoral system with new restrictions on voting. Even under Georgia’s new law, for example, the state still has no-excuse absentee voting and a much longer earlier voting period than Kentucky.

The law in Kentucky establishes three days of early voting in the state; introduces voting centers that would allow for more in-person balloting options; creates an online portal to register and request ballots; and allows voters to fix problems with absentee ballots, a process known as curing.

Voting rights experts note that three days of early voting is still a short window compared with other states that offer the process, and that the law does not have a provision for no-excuse absentee voting. It also includes restrictions like the banning of ballot collection, a practice in which one person gathers and drops off multiple voters’ ballots.

Nearly all of the country’s current efforts to expand voting access are unfolding in states with Democratic-led legislatures, and they go much further in expanding access to the ballot than Kentucky’s law does.

While Kentucky’s compromise — expanding voting access while enacting some more restrictive policies in the name of election security — could serve as a model for other Republican-controlled states, it is more likely to be a blip in a year of GOP-led pushes for voting restrictions.

“We saw a bill come forward this year, and you’ve got to recognize some political realities of Kentucky,” said Morgan McGarvey, the Democratic minority leader in the state Senate. “This bill does not do everything that I would like to see in an election reform law, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.”

For years, Democrats in the state Legislature had worked to expand voting in Kentucky, both by putting forward large, transformative bills that never had a chance of passing, and pared down efforts like simply seeking to keep polls open until 8 p.m. (Kentucky currently closes polls at 6 p.m. on Election Day, the earliest shuttering time in the country along with Indiana’s.) The party was consistently rebuffed by the state Senate, which has been controlled by Republicans since 1999.

“No one can argue: This expands voting options in Kentucky,” McGarvey said. “Every Kentuckian has more choices of when and how to vote than they did before this law. So that’s something we have been fighting for for years, and I’m not going to slow it up.”

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