In a rare show of unity following a contentious 2021 General Assembly, Democrat Governor Andy Beshear was joined by legislative leaders from both parties Wednesday morning as he signed into law the bipartisan election measure shepherded through the legislature by Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams.
House Bill 574, delivered to the governor on March 30, gives Kentucky voters three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting -- including a Saturday -- before Election Day. 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 -- backing 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 -- calling for 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.
HB 574's sponsors included Representative Josh Branscum (R-Russell Springs), whose district includes a portion of Pulaski County.
During the Capitol Rotunda ceremony, Gov. Beshear said it was a good day for the commonwealth and democracy.
"Today is a day of bipartisan action," he said, "where we have put our differences aside and put our people first.…
"When much of the country has put in more restrictive laws, Kentucky leaders were able to come together to stand up for democracy and to expand the opportunity for people to vote. Voting is the bedrock of our democracy and I firmly believe that we should be making it easier for Kentuckians to vote and participate in the democratic process."
The governor went on to call the new law "an important first step" in protecting voters' right to cast their ballots in a "secure and convenient manner." He thanked Secretary Adams for working with him to negotiate election protocols last year as the country prepared to vote in a pandemic.
"None of our conversations were ever political," Gov. Beshear said. "They were always about keeping people safe and making sure they could vote."
Secretary Adams called last year's election the "most secure and successful" one Kentucky has ever had. HB 574, he continued, contains the state's most significant election updates since 1891.
"This is a triumph of both policy and process," Sec. Adams said. "…Here in Kentucky, we're leading the nation in making it both easier to vote and harder to cheat."
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. Sec. Adams not only worked with the governor in order to ensure the 2020 Primary and General elections went smoothly but also listened to local election officials around the commonwealth to craft what ultimately became HB 574.
Pulaski County Clerk Linda Burnett is among those generally pleased with the outcome. While the pandemic certainly prompted a number of changes in the office, Burnett said election reform was a good thing to come from it.
"It gives us a lot of options," Burnett said, though she's not yet sure the particulars for next year's election cycle -- featuring local races. "We'll have to meet with the local Board of Elections, and we're waiting on the state board's ideas are on how they think it should be done too."
Burnett is a fan of early voting, though she would have preferred a week as opposed to HB 574's three days. Considerations still to be worked out include the number of polling places the county will have. Pulaski County is currently comprised of 56 precincts, each traditionally with their own polling locations, but those sites were consolidated to 10 as part of last year's pandemic plan.