Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams knows that working across the political aisle isn’t just a nice idea — it’s absolutely crucial to creating legislation that’s fair and effective.
Adams spoke to the Commonwealth Journal this week in an effort to share with communities around the state a deep dive into House Bill 574, an overhaul of Kentucky’s election policies and procedures on which the Republican Adams worked harmoniously with Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat — and a bill on which both parties found common ground in the General Assembly.
It wasn’t just the bill that saw such bipartisan cooperation, however. Even in 2020, as concerns about safely voting in the midst of COVID-19 saw emergency changes made to the way Kentuckians voted, Adams made sure to involve the relevant lawmakers rather than take things entirely on his shoulders.
“I think it was helpful here that I followed the law. I made a point to go to the legislature and ask for permission for what I did. I didn’t just go out and do it,” said Adams. “I also worked with the governor and I think that’s important too. People didn’t just see a Republican taking over the election system and remaking it his way. They saw the Democrats and Republicans come together and reach an agreement that made sure, no. 1, that everyone’s concerns were addressed, and no. 2, everyone could feel the election was fair because they saw this was done in a bipartisan way, no one was up to anything.
“The bill passed the same way,” he added. “It passed with almost every single Democrat and Republican in the legislature voting for it, and that’s really unusual. You haven’t seen that anywhere else in America this year, we’re really unique in that. When you do that, you have a better product and you also have more public confidence in it.”
Adams is careful about wanting to avoid being like other states, which have “made some mistakes” over the last year, undermining public confidence in elections. That includes places like Pennsylvania, where Adams observed their secretary of state going to court to get permission to count 2020 General Election ballots without verifying signatures and to count ballots that came in after Election Day but not postmarked — “I’m not suggesting the election was stolen, but I am suggesting they didn’t follow the rules” — and Georgia, which has made recent headlines for its Voter ID law, which some have decried as racist for impacting the access of certain demographics to the polls. For Adams, the problem is not the law itself, but how it came into being.
“There’s a double standard against Republicans, especially in the south. Georgia’s laws are way more progressive than Delaware’s, where Joe Biden is from, and way more progressive than New York’s, where Hillary Clinton is from,” said Adams. “... Specifically, this Georgia bill requires identity verification of absentee ballots. Well, so does Kentucky’s (bill) that we just passed, but in Kentucky, we got a bunch of praise. In Georgia, (Republicans) got a attacked. So I think there’s a double standard.
“But (Georgia GOP) deserve some blame too because they did this in a one-party way,” he added. “They didn’t get Democrats and Republicans together to address how to improve their system, it was a more partisan-led effort. That doesn’t mean it was racist, it just means they could have done a better job bringing Democrats in and getting their feedback on it. That’s what we got right in Kentucky.”
The same thing is happening in Washington, only as a “much bigger threat,” observed Adams, where “Congressional Democrats are trying to to pass their own Democratic election law for the whole country and make it mandatory in all 50 states. It would actually strike down the bill that we just passed. They’re making the same mistake Georgia made, which is to try to do this in a partisan way. It’s a big mistake.”
For as long as the work done for this state by Kentucky lawmakers stands, however, it will include tweaks to an antiquated election code that Adams called “long overdue,” as well as permanent versions of some of the most successful ideas to come out of the most unusual 2020 elections. In particular, the Thursday, Friday and Saturday before Election Day saw voter turnout spike in Kentucky, said Adams, and so the state will allow that same three-day window for early voting moving forward, with Saturday seen as particularly beneficial for 9-to-5 weekday workers.
“We wanted to avoid weeks and weeks of voting,” said Adams. “It’s not sustainable permanently. It’s very costly. It also means that voters are voting before they have all the information. ... It’s just not fair to the candidates or the voters to have weeks and weeks to vote. We thought the best compromise was to have three days of early voting.”
Counties will have the option to have a countywide voting precinct — it won’t be mandatory, but those counties that wish to do so can consolidate voting locations for nearby precincts; voter wait time actually went down last year in such voting centers, which proved to be efficient at moving people through, said Adams — but one idea they’ll need to get used to is that of paper ballots, which the bill will have all voting locations in Kentucky transition into using.
“I found that everybody agrees on that that I’ve talked to on this issue: They all want to vote on a piece of paper,” said Adams. “They feel more secure voting (that way) than using an electronic machine. I don’t buy conspiracy theories that Donald Trump or Andy Beshear stole the election through misuse of the voting machines, I don’t believe any of that, but the truth is, a lot of people do. To me, it’s important to move to paper because I can’t do a recount if I can’t count all the ballots.”
Counties that have recently bought new equipment for electronic voting can be grandfathered into using it for as long as they’re able, but when it comes time to upgrade, “they’re going to have to buy paper ballot equipment,” said Adams, who noted that when he took office in January of 2020, there were 29 Kentucky counties that didn’t have a single machine that could process a paper ballot. “We’ve been extremely diligent in applying for federal grant money to give to counties to help them buy new equipment,” he said.
Adams said the election code he inherited was written in 1891 and was in sore need of a “revamp” by Kentucky lawmakers. He didn’t have the power to implement certain key changes himself and had to go to the legislature to get them enacted. One was a penalty for ballot harvesting, where third-party groups go door-to-door and collect ballots, a “situations that lends itself to fraud or duress.” Adams said there was a “loophole in the law” in that there was “really no way to punish” the practice, so they made ballot harvesting a felony.
Also, Adams got additional authority by state statute to clean out the voter rolls, something he said he’s been “very aggressive about” — removing deceased individuals or people who vote in other states.
“We’ve had several months we’ve taken more dead voters off the rolls than live voters. We’ve been extremely vigorous on that,” said Adams. “But there’s a loophole in our law: Even if I have knowledge (or) receive notice from another secretary of state that someone is voting in their state but is also on our rolls here and able to vote, I couldn’t take them off. I had to wait four years by law. That’s just crazy. So we closed that loophole. Now I don’t have to wait four years, I can just go ahead and take those people off.
“This prevents double voting,” he added. “I’d say the threat of double voting is even a bigger threat than the risk of people who are dead having people vote in their names. Now we’re in the position to take over the next couple of years hundreds of thousands of people off our rolls that we weren’t able to take off previously.”
Maybe the biggest change that will discourage sketchy voting counts however is the absentee ballot portal — Adams called it “the most significant thing we did last year.” Now, the voter doesn’t have to call the county clerk on the phone to get an absentee ballot. They can go to the State Board of Elections website at elect.ky.gov and request the ballot from the state, saving time for the voter and lowering the clerk’s call volume.
“Used to be the voter had to call or write a letter to the clerk, then the clerk would mail an application for a ballot, then the voter would fill it out and mail it back to the clerk. That’s really inefficient. It’s expensive, and it’s just dumb. ... The portal verifies the voter’s identity electronically and also lets the voter track her ballot: If it’s been processed and sent out, if it’s been received back and counted. Total transparency. It’s good for the voter, but it’s also good for me, because I’ve got to log in too and see if ballot have been lost or stolen.”
In 2018, the last federal election before Adams took office, 7.5 percent of the absentee ballots were thrown in the trash, with the voter never informed that their ballot was tossed, because the signature on the ballot didn’t match the signature on the registration card.
“People’s signatures change over time; I’m 45 years old and mine has changed over time,” said Adams. “So if that signature doesn’t match a requirement, the clerk contacts that voter and give that voter a chance to prove it was her. ... We didn’t used to ask. Now we actually ask. If it was fraudulent, we want to know about it.”
All of these changes were made with the support of the state’s county clerks, said Adams. He surveyed them before he began putting the bill together, and “almost unanimously” they backed the above ideas, "even though it makes more work for them.” That number included Pulaski County Clerk Linda Burnett. Adams is aware that she received “a lot of praise for how she ran the election on the ground” locally and called her “a really good clerk, she’s really professional.”
Had the clerks not backed the changes, the bill wouldn’t have passed, said Adams.
“This is very much a bill crafted by election administrators, which is good,” he said. “That means we know what works and what doesn’t. There’s not some ideological or political agenda, it’s just good government.”