Kentucky lawmakers approve early voting for state, send bill to governor

Published 4:20 am Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Kentucky lawmakers finished work Monday night on a bipartisan election measure to make early voting a Bluegrass state fixture — a loosening of voting access in sharp contrast to bitter partisan battles being waged elsewhere.

The bill would give Kentucky voters three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting — including a Saturday — before Election Day. But it backed off from the temporary, pandemic-related accommodations made last year that allowed widespread mail-in absentee balloting.

The proposal also aims to strengthen election security protections.

The Republican-led House sent the measure to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear on a final 91-3 vote. Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams said it contains the state’s most significant election updates in more than a century, and he urged the governor to sign the “common-sense legislation.”

House Speaker David Osborne praised the bill’s sponsors, led by GOP Rep. Jennifer Henson Decker, for reaching out to various interest groups and finding “common ground.”

Decker predicted the measure will strengthen Kentuckians’ confidence in the state’s election system, which she said will promote strong turnout.

“The end result makes our commonwealth a great example of what can be done to improve election integrity while still allowing appropriate access to Kentucky voters,” Osborne said.

Kentucky is accustomed to bare-knuckled partisan fights, but the tone among lawmakers was mild as they discussed the election bill — especially compared to the bitter debates on election law changes in other states. It echoed the tone set for last year’s elections, when Beshear and Adams hashed out emergency voting measures during the pandemic that helped Kentucky largely avoid the long lines and other problems encountered elsewhere.

Across the country, Republicans have introduced a flood of legislation to restrict voting access after President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump in November. Many of the proposals target absentee voting after Trump repeatedly made false claims about fraud in mail voting.

The Kentucky legislation, by contrast, would relax pre-pandemic voting law to make it easier to vote. It would allow counties to establish vote centers, where any voter in the county could vote regardless of precinct. It would maintain an online portal for Kentuckians to request a mail-in ballot but keep existing restrictions on who can vote by mail.

On the election security side, the bill would result in the statewide transition toward universal paper ballots to guarantee a paper audit trail. It enhances the ability of state election officials to remove nonresident voters from voter rolls. It expressly prohibits and penalizes ballot harvesting, the practice of collecting ballots from likely supporters and returning them to election offices.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, Kentucky prohibited early voting by mail or in person unless a person could not vote on Election Day because of advanced age, illness, severe disability or temporarily residing out of the county or state.

The special pandemic-related election rules Beshear and Adams worked out last year included multiple weeks of early in-person voting to prevent a crush of Election Day voting.

Republican lawmakers backed away from continuing weeks of early in-person voting for future elections, but they accepted the three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting.