LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Election years are notoriously busy for county clerks, but with a presidential race and a pandemic, 2020 became much more work than expected, causing those in the Fayette County Clerk's office and added temporary workers to work seven days a week from September 1 through the general election in November.
As Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins Jr. reflected on the hectic year Thursday morning with the Lexington Forum during a virtual meeting, he explained how much of it was a learning curve and a team effort.
"We had the mayor, and all the city stepped up and helped me out. As you now know UK. We signed a contract to use the stadium in two days. I'm sure that's the record that will never be broken in terms of getting through the bureaucracy at UK," he said, "So, it's important not only that we have good people in leadership positions but they that they get along and cooperate and get things done and I want you to know that we're blessed here in Lexington, at least in that respect."
Kentucky's primary election was pushed back from May to June for officials to plan a safer way for Kentuckians to vote during the pandemic. In Fayette County, absentee/mail-in ballots became widely available. Blevins said there were about 93,000 mail-in ballot requests, which he said were all fulfilled with 86,000 returned by mail. The rest of the voters showed up on Election Day to a single location: Kroger Field.
Blevins said the set-up was efficient at the stadium and made sense for voters' flow until they started showing up.
"The people at the stadium that day were two kinds. About every third or fourth voter was an independent, who wanted to know how they could vote and then were being told well, 'you can't there's nothing for you to vote, vote for.' Who would then, you know, argue or be frustrated or understandably so because they were just like me. We didn't anticipate this; it's just not happened before. Usually, there's always something you know, a council, a contested council race, or at large race something. Nope. Not this time. So every third or fourth voter was one of those," he recounted. "And the other kind that really surprised me quite a bit as well were people that would bring their absentee ballot with them, and want to hand it over to the election officer, so that they could vote in person because they weren't comfortable with the absentee ballot process."
Blevins explained those erroneous Fayette County residents added hours to the check-in process as voting officials had to turn those individuals away instead of just scanning their ID and moving to the next voter.
Overall, though, Blevins said the primary was a success regarding voter turnout and said 95 percent of voters mailed in their ballots, allowing his team to work ahead of election day. He said only 20 percent of votes came in on or after election day, which he said was "manageable" for his assembly team.
In a year when there was considerable discussion about voter fraud coming from the White House, Blevins confirmed the primary election was fraud-free. He explained, "The Secretary of State himself has said there were zero cases of fraud in the primary. I want you to absorb that; a record number of absentee ballots zero, I can say that for sure for Fayette County because we checked every doggone one of those balances, and all of them were good."
After the primary, Blevins and his team went into the planning stages for the general election. After a discussion with the Kentucky Board of Elections pleading for a quick decision, Blevins, along with dozens of other county clerks across the state, waited months to learn the Board did not heed their request to simplify the general election.
"The governor says, 'I want mail.' And Secretary of State says, 'I want early voting, and I want Election Day,' and so they did all of that, despite the fact that the three largest counties pleaded with them, 'Please, don't do that to us,' and so they did."
Blevins explained this caused Fayette County to buy drop boxes for ballots. Thanks to funding from the City of Lexington, he hired dozens of temporary workers--36 to the ballot processing warehouse and 12 to his office because the election was not the only item on Blevins' to-do list.
He said, "In the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of trying to pull off unprecedented and crazy, you know, new elections. We're actually working overtime on the rest of our business." Those items included motor vehicle titles and registration, mortgage deeds, and marriage licenses. "I don't know why, I guess I do know why, I can suspect, but we are selling and buying more cars this year than we ever have in as far back as we can remember the transfers are through the roof," and he said the pattern was the same for mortgages.
Heading into the general election, another change came that Blevins called "incredible" and something he hopes the state adopts going forward.
He explained, "We relaxed the rules on absentee ballots. And by that, I mean, normally, Kentucky is very, fairly strict about you have to have your ballot package just right, or else we don't count it. If you're missing a signature on the inner envelope or the outer envelope, not counted. That's under normal circumstances. In the general election, they relaxed those rules to the point of. Close enough. I'll call it."
In the primary, he said 7% or about 7,000 mail-in ballots were rejected with the old rules, but with the new guidelines, less than 500 were rejected, and that was with thousands of more mail-in votes submitted.
As the general election opened with mail-in voting and Monday through Saturday in-person voting, Blevins said it was smooth sailing with 253,000 registered voters and 96,000 requested absentee ballots.
During the general election, out of the eight polling places, the library on Tate's Creek Road was consistently busy, often causing 45-minute waits when there was no wait at nearby locations. Blevins said, "I can't explain it, we would tell people-- I drove out there myself and watching there's this big line out onto the street, and I would pull up and get out of my car and say, 'hi I'm your county clerk, I am telling you, Wellington five minutes away has no line, go over there!' People go 'Okay,' and then stay in line. Yeah, it was crazy; I guess they just like Tates Creek."
Looking ahead to future elections, which will be after 2021 for Kentucky unless there is a special election, Blevins said there would surely be "intense pressure" from voters to offer several voting options.
He reflected from a voter's perspective, "What's not to like? Wow, I mean, you can vote from your kitchen table, or you can vote—any one of three weeks, up to Election Day, including Saturdays at your convenience. And then if you're a traditionalist, I like to call them, and you want to vote on election day, you can still do that too. So, all the options were on the table in the general election and from a voter's perspective. That's the dream; it's like a smorgasbord of options. Now let's talk about it from a county clerks' perspective, no thank you. Holy cow. We can't do that. So, it's going to be interesting to see what happens when the legislature gets together."
Although Blevins said he hopes mail-in voting will stay part of the election threadwork in Kentucky, he said he would need a building to pull off an election that includes that style of voting outside of the pandemic as in 2020. He was able to use facilities that were not in use, like the Lexington Senior Center, which would typically not have been an option.
"You have to remember our legislators heavily Republican, and they don't like voting by mail. So, I would say the odds of that happening are pretty low," he said, "Early voting is a maybe. That's the one that's going to be unusual because you're going to see a Secretary of State, Republican, probably, advocating for early voting, and you're going to see county clerks saying 'no, it's not practical.' And I hate it, I hate to say it out loud, but I'm in that camp. A lot of people want to do early voting to increase turnout. It turns out it doesn't do that...it doesn't increase turnout, just know that, and it increased costs substantially, so you know in terms of bang for your buck it's not the way to go."
As he reflected on the 2020 elections, Blevins encouraged Kentuckians to "be proud of not only Lexington but us as a state. This is one thing--We're not perfect, no question, but at least with elections, we really do a good job with them."