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Kentucky’s races for governor often generate low voter turnout. Will this year be different?

Kentucky voters head to the polls early to cast their ballots in the 2023 elections at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage.
Justin Hicks
Kentucky voters head to the polls early to cast their ballots in the 2023 elections at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage.

Turnout at elections without national names on the ballot has historically been low in Kentucky. With a tight gubernatorial election, which candidate can drive more voters to the polls could make the difference.

In 2022, 3.59 million Kentuckians were registered to vote. Rand Paul’s U.S. Senate seat, six U.S. House seats, 138 state legislators and two high-profile ballot measures — one of which would have amended the state Constitution to undermine abortion rights – were up for debate at the polls.

It was the first general election since the General Assembly passed a bill, giving Kentuckians three extra days of early, no-excuse voting. Turnout boomed during the loosened restrictions of the pandemic, with 60.3% of registered voters casting ballots during the general election.

But turnout when Kentucky’s governor and other statewide offices like attorney general and secretary of state are on the ballot are typically low. In 2015, 30.6% of voters cast ballots in the election won by former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. In 2019, turnout was just 44.2%, one of the highest rates for an off-year election in recorded history.

Kentucky’s Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams said turnout in Kentucky’s odd-year gubernatorial elections has always been a struggle.

“You have people that come out of the woodwork to vote for a president, and then the officers that are far more important to their daily lives and their quality of living — they don't vote for that,” he said.

Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams voted early at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage Thursday, encouraging others to do the same ahead of Election Day. Adams is also up for election, running against former Democratic lawmaker Buddy Wheatley.
Justin Hicks
Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams voted early at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage Thursday, encouraging others to do the same ahead of Election Day. Adams is also up for election, running against former Democratic lawmaker Buddy Wheatley.

Adams, who is running for reelection against former Democratic Rep. Buddy Wheatley, said Republicans are more influenced by this trend than Democrats. In years without a presidential election on the ballot, Democrats and Republicans tend to show up at similar rates.

But in presidential years, Republicans in Kentucky have tended to outperform Democrats in terms of turnout and results — the difference was greater than 4 percentage points in both 2016 and 2020.

According to Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, the effort to drive turnout in an off-year has strongly informed how the candidates pitch themselves to voters, especially Republican candidate for governor Daniel Cameron.

“His strategy is clearly to nationalize the election,” Cross said. “If Cameron could consolidate the Republican base and get them to the polls, he could win this election.”

But polling has largely swung in Beshear’s favor thus far. He is also one of the most popular Democratic governors among Trump supporters, according to a recent Morning Consult survey.

Republican candidates try to take advantage of this effect by focusing on national issues — tying Democratic opponents to national figures who are polarizing in Kentucky, like Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, and more recently, Joe Biden.

Cameron frequently touts his endorsement from former President Donald Trump and attacked Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear for his continued support of President Joe Biden.

“[Beshear] is endorsed by Joe Biden. He is beholden to the far left of his party,” Cameron said at the KET gubernatorial debate last month. “The fact of the matter is, is that when it comes to Joe Biden and Donald Trump, I think most people at home right now agree that things were better in terms of the money in your pocket [under Trump].”

Incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has tried to do the opposite, calling for nonpartisanship and encouraging Republican Kentuckians to step outside hardened party lines and vote for him.

“People should be able to vote for whoever they want, not stick to just one team or another but to actually look at the candidates and say ‘Who is going to make my life better?’” Beshear said at the debate. “My opponent constantly tries to make you think that this race is somehow about who's running for president.”

This year’s election could very well come down to turnout, Cross said. Both candidates are crisscrossing the state in the hopes of driving more supporters to the polls on Nov. 7.

Cross said that Cameron has largely focused on turning out his base, those already in his “partisan orbit,” rather than persuading undecided voters.

“He's going after people who have already made up their minds that they don't like how Andy Beshear handled the pandemic for example, and he's trying to get them to the polls,” Cross said.

At this point in the race, networks of supporters are working behind the scenes, playing a critical role in identifying potential voters, knocking on doors and putting up yard signs.

This year’s race for governor has been the most expensive in state history. Beshear’s campaign fundraising has outpaced Cameron’s, though advertising from outside groups has kept the Republican candidate competitive.

Despite all that spending, many Kentuckians still aren’t engaged with this year’s races.

Christian County Clerk Melinda Humphries said keeping folks educated on the election has been a struggle.

“They don't always recognize that there's an election,” Humphries said. “And the governor's race, in my opinion, is just as important as the presidential for the state of Kentucky.”

She said that during the 2020 presidential election, the state was flush with federal funds to inform people about COVID-conscious changes to voting, driving up turnout and keeping people informed. But much of that funding is gone now.

“We just hope people exercise the right and be sure to take their driver's license or ID,” Humphries said. “We hope that people again will vote and communicate that to their neighbor or their friends or coworkers.”

Kentucky now has three days of early voting on Thursday, Friday and Saturday before the election.

Secretary Adams encouraged voters to take advantage of early voting to avoid long lines on Election Day.

“It's not because I personally care what day someone chooses to vote, I could care less,” Adams said. “But what's good for me and for the county clerks and the voters, too, is having a smooth election. And it's just easier to run an election when the votes are being distributed evenly versus a few here and crickets at the polls, and then one day of crowds.”

This will be the first governor's election in which early voting is an option, and it is unclear if it will boost turnout.

Early voting did not appear to have a tangible impact on either the 2022 general election or the primaries earlier this year. Only about 14% of Kentucky voters chose to vote early in either of those elections. But in Christian County, nearly a quarter did.

Humphries said she hopes early voting will encourage more people to cast a ballot. She said her county has struggled with turnout — only 27.7% of eligible voters in Christian County cast ballots in 2022, significantly lower than the overall turnout of 41.9%. But she said making it easier to vote will encourage more people to participate in the process.

“Honestly, when people are ready to vote, they're just ready to vote,” Humphries said. “They just want to get in there, cast their ballot, vote for their candidate and be done.”

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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