As early voting begins, use it or risk losing it, says Kentucky’s chief elections officer

Published 4:14 pm Friday, May 17, 2024

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By McKenna Horsley

Kentucky Lantern

As early voting began Thursday, one of the first to cast a ballot — and to show his support for the process — was Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams.

In a recent interview with the Lantern, Adams applauded the defeat of a recent legislative proposal to repeal early voting.

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“I do encourage voters to use it for their own convenience and also to just send a message that we like this and we don’t want it taken away,” Adams said. “If we don’t use early voting, we could lose it.”  

Voting in this year’s Kentucky’s primary will wrap up on Election Day Tuesday, and across the commonwealth election officials and poll workers have been preparing.

Adams said he is not anticipating long lines at polling places and predicts turnout to be around 15%. 

Kentucky’s last two primaries had similar turnout to what Adams is predicting. In 2012 — the state’s last primary without a U.S. Senate race on the ballot but with a presidential election — turnout was about 14%. There have been about 18,900 requests for absentee ballots, which is similar to last year’s requests, Adams said. 

On the ballot will be state legislators and many local offices, including commonwealth’s attorneys, fiscal courts, sheriffs and more, as well as the 2024 presidential primary. 

While Democratic President Joe Biden and former Republican President Donald Trump have all but officially secured their party’s nominations, Adams said “people still want to be heard on that.” Trump won Kentucky’s eight electoral votes in 2016 and 2020. 

Kentucky has “a lot of races on the ballot around the state that are not high profile, but really important,” Adams continued. He’s also watching Tuesday for the future direction of his political party. 

“I think the most interesting thing out of this election is what does it tell us about the future of the Republican Party in Kentucky because we do have a lot of primaries,” Adams said. 

He added that “as the state gets more polarized, the primaries matter more,” and resources by campaigns and PACs are moving to support candidates in party primaries over general elections. 

“In particular with the Republican side, you’ve got the direction of the party and the legislature kind of on the line,” Adams said. “You’ve got several races where you’ve got incumbents on both sides of the divide with serious challengers and a lot of money being spent on both sides.” 

Open primaries? Maybe

Something else that Adams sees in Kentucky’s future is open primaries, in which voters don’t have to be affiliated with a party to participate. Kentucky has closed primaries, meaning only registered voters of a political party can vote in that party’s primary. 

“I do think it’s inevitable that we’re going to have open primaries. I think it’s just a matter of time.” 

Adams said it may not happen while he is secretary of state, but opening primaries could be on the table in the future as the fastest-growing category of voters, registered independents, continues to increase. Independents cannot take part in Kentucky’s closed primaries. It would rely on Republicans in the legislature to establish it, he said. 

The idea also may gain attention of Republican leadership in the General Assembly, which tends to lean traditional Republican, as more of their members become at risk of losing seats to “more fringy people” in a primary election, Adams continued. However, that may take another election cycle or two to materialize. 

According to April 2024 voter registration data, about 46% of Kentucky voters were registered Republicans, 43% registered Democrats and 10% registered as independent or another political party. 

Asked if opening primaries could increase voter turnout, Adams said it would “help if we didn’t disenfranchise 10% of our voters and tell them they can’t vote.” He did add that independent voters tend to have the “worst turnout.” 

In the 2023 November general election, voters not registered as Republican or Democrat had about 17% turnout. Democrats had almost 24% and Republicans just over 31%. 

“So even when they can vote, they’re less likely to vote than Democrats and Republicans, and that’s not a surprise,” Adams said. “There may not be that much commonality that an independent may find with the D and the R as the politics gets more polarized.” 

Adams said he supports open primary systems like in Arizona and New Hampshire where registered independents choose a political party’s ballot. He doesn’t favor open primaries where there is no voter registration by party as a member of one party could influence the other’s election. 

Poll workers

With an expected low turnout, Adams said the number of workers to oversee polling locations is “in pretty good shape for May.” However, November’s turnout — and the need for people to make sure polling places run smoothly — is expected to be much higher. 

“The big challenge is: are we going to have enough places and are we going to have enough people to staff those places?” Adams said. 

So, while he doesn’t yet know the exact number of locations and workers needed — county election plans are typically submitted in the summer — he said he is “optimistic” that a higher interest in voting and the election will lead to more people wanting to be poll workers. 

Recently, the Republican National Committee and Trump have pledged to recruit 100,000 volunteers and lawyers to monitor voting during this election cycle, including training poll workers as well. Adams said he saw that as a positive and hopes Democrats will follow suit. 

Anecdotally, Adams said he has heard from some who were “dubious” about how Kentucky elections were handled until becoming poll workers and gaining more confidence in the process through the experience. 

After being elected secretary of state in 2019, Adams quickly had to work on the challenge of how to safely hold an election during a pandemic and later with Trump’s groundless allegations of widespread election fraud. 

“I don’t think we ever went through an era recently where people lost all confidence in our process,” Adams said. “I think in 2020, they had confidence. I think they started with some real doubts, and they saw us run that Election ‘20 and they were satisfied that we had integrity in the process, and we didn’t have fraud, suppression, all those sort of things that were concerns.”

Adams was recently named the 2024 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award winner for “expanding voting rights and standing up for free and fair elections despite party opposition and death threats from election deniers.”

When asked if he thought confidence in Kentucky elections had changed in recent years, Adams said he believes most Kentucky voters trust the elections process based on surveys he’s seen and that they have not had huge swings in that confidence in the last several years, but some have concerns about elections in other states. 

“I think part of the reason for that is that in our state elections, although I certainly have a role, a lot of what the voter sees is a decentralized process where their neighbors or co-workers, the county clerk, is someone in many cases the voter knows personally in small counties,” Adams said.

Also in the legislative sessions since 2020, Adams points to unanimous or nearly unanimous support for election laws showing “bipartisan buy-in” as a sign that increases public confidence in elections. 

Adams did lament that the state Senate this year nixed $13 million that had been proposed to help counties raise poll worker pay and rent more spaces for polling sites.  The $13 million across three years was part of House Bill 580, a large elections bill that became law. However, the funding provision was taken out in the Senate, and Adams called it “real disappointment.” 

“We had these massive surpluses, and we had all sorts of appropriations for Louisville for building stuff like let’s say earmarks or whatever, but it would have been really nice to have $13 million for our election.”