Election 2023: Michael Adams and Buddy Wheatley vie for Secretary of State

Published 9:33 am Monday, October 16, 2023

This is the second in a series examining down ballot races, which include agricultural commissioner, state auditor, treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state.

In Kentucky, the Secretary of State is responsible for election management, business registration and preserving state records.

Besides Gov. Andy Beshear, Secretary of State Michael Adams is the only incumbent running for re-election this November.

Before his first term, Adams was a national campaign attorney and member of the State Board of Elections.

He faces Democratic Charles “Buddy“ Wheatley, a former state representative, Covington fire chief and labor attorney.

Why are you running?

Adams positions himself as the strongest defender of Kentucky elections.

Michael Adams

During the primary, he fended off several primary opponents who spread election misinformation. He said that’s a good sign, but the work isn’t over.

In January, Adams thinks the legislature might try to roll back early voting, an option added during the pandemic.

He said that he is one of few Republican secretaries of state willing to fight for more voting access, and so he needs to be in office to push back against any regression.

“If you want Kentucky to move backwards, don’t vote for me,” he said.

Wheatley decided to run for several reasons. First, he was angry about alleged partisan gerrymandering during the redistricting process costing him his legislative seat.

Second, he saw Adams’ handling of the 2022 elections as voter suppression, he said. He wants to increase voter turnout.

Buddy Wheatley

“There was a drastic reduction in polling locations, which caused the lowest voter turnout in 30 years,” Wheatley said.

Adams fiercely denies Wheatley’s allegations.

He said that in some cases, because of COVID, consolidation was necessary and that wasn’t anyone’s fault.

Adams added that he fought “voraciously” against the State Board of Elections, which has final say over polling places. Whenever the question was having greater or fewer numbers of polling places, Adams said he always supported more.

“That’s a lie,” he said. “… To say the blame is on me is blatantly false.”

What are your plans if elected?

Adams’ primary goal is protecting the ground he has gained during his first term, he said.

In his eyes, those gains include:

  • implementing the photo ID requirement for voting;
  • adding early voting days;
  • cleaning up voter rolls to remove 150,000 dead voters;
  • tracking absentee ballots;
  • Establishing video surveillance for voting machines when not in use;
  • transitioning from electronic voting machines to paper ballots;
  • expanding post-election audits; and
  • improving voting locations.

As the only candidate that has worked with, and been commended by, both governor candidates, Adams said he is in a good position to do so.

Wheatley wants to expand to two full weeks of early voting and keep the polls open until 7 p.m. (right now, they close at 6 p.m.)

He would also work to make Kentucky an open primary state, allowing independent and third party voters to vote in primaries. Currently, only Democratic and Republican voters can vote in their respective primary elections.

Wheatley said that would lead to less partisanship and higher turnout.

“We have a lot of veterans who are independents who want to participate in our elections,” he said. “It will promote civic engagement by having everybody eligible to vote in our primaries.”

He supports restoration of voting rights to felons.

A less commonly mentioned role of the Secretary of State is the Commonwealth’s chief business officer.

As such, Adams wants to promote a culture of entrepreneurship, so that Kentucky is less dependent on out-of-state corporations for jobs or economic success.

The number of businesses has grown significantly in the past few years, Adams said. He thinks part of the reason is that during the pandemic, people decided they didn’t want to have to rely on anyone else but themselves.

He wants to encourage that personally, as a figure traveling across Kentucky, but will also work with the legislature to create that culture.

Smaller Eastern Kentucky counties aren’t waiting for some out-of-state company to “save them,” he said. Instead, they are taking their future into their own hands. Adams thinks that will move all of Kentucky forward.

Wheatley said he’s heard complaints about unnecessary delays in business filings that he would work to speed up.

How do you distinguish yourself from your opponent?

Wheatley said that, unlike Adams, he would work full-time as Secretary of State. Adams is a partner in a national election law firm.

It is legal for Adams to hold a job outside of his constitutional duties, but he is the only officer to currently do so. Nonetheless, it has garnered criticism from the Democratic Party.

He also called Adams a hypocrite, who says one thing and does something different. For example, he alleged that while Adams says he is against election deniers in public, his law firm has represented them before.

Adams has no shortage of criticism of his opponent, either.

First, he said that Wheatley was hand-picked by Gov. Andy Beshear, but that there is a reason governors aren’t allowed to simply appoint secretaries of state, alluding that Wheatley would be beholden to Beshear and the Democratic Party.

Second, he said that his opponent doesn’t have integrity or honesty.

“That should be a given, but it’s not,” Adams said.

Comparably, Adams said he does have honesty, integrity and the guts to go against his party if necessary.

Third, Adams said Wheatley voted against election reform bills during his time in the legislature, including paper ballots and increasing the number of random post-election audits.

Wheatley said that he does support paper ballots, and may have voted against the bill implementing paper ballots because he opposed other, unrelated election provisions in the bill.