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Why Kentucky Bans Alcohol Sales on Election Days

The ban on alcohol sales during the 6 a.m. to 6p.m. polling hours was a Prohibition-era response to what was already a well-established tradition in Kentucky—buying votes with liquor.The problem goes back to the Antebellum period. Back then, it wasn’t unusual for saloons to double as polling places at the time. Corrupt politicians did whatever they could to make voters happy.“And of course one way to do that was to keep the voters liquored up and basically seduce them or bribe them with drinks, free drinks, and it could actually skew the results of the election,” Jim Holmberg with the Filson Historical Society of Louisville. Booze for ballots became an issue.Over the years, numerous attempts to bring back Kentucky’s Election Day sales have failed.Liquor is a major businessin Kentucky. This year, state Sen. John Schickel’s bill wasintroduced in the General Assembly amid growing concerns over millions of dollars lost sales—not only at bars, restaurants and liquor stores, but along Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. In 2012, 509,292 people took tours at Bourbon Trail distilleries.Those distillery tours are also shut down during polling hours.Schickel told Kentucky Public Radio earlier in the session that the ban is no longer practical.  Elections are closely monitored on the state and federal levels for fraud. Schickel, a Republican from Union whose career was in law enforcement, said he's never heard complaints about voters showing up drunk at the polls.His bill does have a provision for communities that want to continue the ban.“This law will allow election day sales, but it also allows for a local option if people don’t want it,” he said.Chris Schreck says he’ll welcome an uptick in election day business. His family’s store, Shreck’s Baxter Liquors in Louisville, has been around since 1936, almost as long as Kentucky’s election day sales ban.“We usually do about half the business (on Election Day) and they’re usually lined up at the door right when the election’s over.  The only bad part is it’s my golf day and I enjoy going out golfing with my buddies, but it’s fine with me if we’re open,” Shreck said.Going into their respective legislative sessions, Kentucky and South Carolina were the only two states left with statewide bans on election day alcohol sales. In the Palmetto State, stores can sell beer and wine and restaurants can serve drinks, but package liquor sales are prohibited.  Edward Lee, a history professor at Winthrop University History Professor—and the mayor of York, S.C.— said South Caroline has no movement afoot to allow more alcohol sales during elections.“I think there’s a belief in South Carolina that alcohol and ballots are a combustible combination, so there’s not going to be that temptation, and we’re not going to have alcohol that readily available when people are visiting their polling places.  South Carolina goes its own way,  it’s historically gone its own way and I don’t see it changing,” Lee said.The next statewide election day in Kentucky is May 20, 2014.The 2013 General Assembly regular session is nearing an end. Barring a dramatic development, Kentuckians seeking to buy libations will have to wait until polls close or cross state lines.

Rick Howlett was midday host and the host of LPM's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." He was with LPM from 2001-2023 and held many different titles, including Morning Edition host, Assignment Editor and Interim News Director. He died in August 2023. Read a remembrance of Rick here.

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