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Kentucky Primary Turnout Was Up, But Voting Challenges Remain

Jefferson County polling site at the Kentucky Exposition Center.
Jefferson County polling site at the Kentucky Exposition Center.

Kentucky’s primary election on Tuesday went pretty smoothly, despite claims from national celebrities and politicians that there would be widespread chaos as a result of having fewer in-person polling places in the state.

But even though it appears there was record voter turnout during the election, there were still some problems.

Voters in Lexington had to wait in line for up to two hours at the city’s only polling place. And though every Kentucky voter was allowed to cast a ballot by mail, some said they never received one (those voters were allowed to cast a ballot in person as long as they “canceled” their absentee ballot).

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams made the changes to Kentucky’s election processes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, in an attempt to reduce voters’ and poll workers’ exposure on primary day.

But University of Kentucky political science professor Steve Voss says that these policies inadvertently disenfranchise poor voters and overly benefit affluent, white-collar ones.

“One of the reasons the number of polling stations matter is the distance people have to travel,” Voss said. “You’re running off voters. Who are you running off? Resource-poor voters in urban areas. Which in Kentucky means, a whole lot of minority voters.”

The decision to reduce the number of polling places was ultimately left up to local election officials. Most counties decided to have only one polling place; some had more.

But the decision to expand mail-in voting to all voters — long a priority for some Democrats — was made by Beshear and Adams.

Voss also says that contrary to popular belief, mail-in voting ends up demobilizing some voters by creating another hoop for voters to jump through, especially in Kentucky where voters had to formally request a ballot to receive one.

“Now, when you mail the ballots preemptively, some of those problems go away. The sort of barrier of requesting a ballot goes away, but you still have the mailing it out and sending it out,” Voss said.

Meanwhile some of Kentucky’s already-existing election laws aren’t exactly the most voter-friendly — like the state’s earliest-in-the-nation poll closure time of 6 p.m. and the requirement for citizens to register to vote a month ahead of an election.

The state’s early poll closing time became especially visible in Louisville on Tuesday, where voters who hadn’t made it into the city’s sole polling location inside the sprawling Kentucky Expo Center at the state fairgrounds by 6 p.m. were locked out (a judge ended up ruling that voters inside the building by 6:30 pm could cast a ballot).

Sadiqa Reynolds, president of the Louisville Urban League, said that when changing voting processes, officials need to recognize that some voters aren’t as engaged with the process as others.

“I am sure there were some people who were discouraged by not being able to maneuver through getting their ballot, by not having a computer at home themselves, maybe trying to do it on their phone, maybe not knowing that they should go ahead and go [vote] if they hadn't received their mail-in ballot,” Reynolds said.

“But it's the first time Kentucky's done that. So we'll just go keep going.”

Reynolds said that Kentucky should celebrate the high voter turnout on Tuesday, but continue to look for ways to improve the system, like sending ballots directly to voters.

“What we need is mail-in ballots that show up without request. I think the requesting process was more complicated than it needed to be in the beginning and ran into some hiccups,” Reynolds said.

Both Gov. Andy Beshear and Secretary of State Michael Adams say they want Kentucky to have more polling places during the November General Election than it did during the primary election.

“We do in our larger metropolises need to expand our number of polling locations, though I think those that handled the expo center [Louisville’s sole polling place] did a really good job of making sure people got in and got out,” Beshear said.

During an interview on KET on primary night, Adams said the state can’t have as few polling locations as it did on Tuesday.

"So the question is, How many can we have? How many poll workers will we have? And what will we have to do to accommodate, if anything?" Adams said.

Voter turnout appears to have been at an all time high during the primary. Adams estimated on Tuesday afternoon that 1.1 million Kentuckians had cast ballots, which would nearly tie Kentucky’s previous record turnout for a primary election: 32.3% in 2008.

But it’s too early to tell whether the new provisions put in place for the primary ended up franchising or suppressing low-income or minority voters, because data hasn't yet been released on who came out to vote and where they live. County clerks are still counting mail-in ballots, and many clerks say they won’t submit their final results until the deadline for them to submit them to the Secretary of State’s office — June 30.

Reporter Amina Elahi contributed to this story.

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