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National figures raise concerns about voter suppression in Kentucky; local election officials say fears are overblown

Posted at 6:43 PM, Jun 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-23 08:44:32-04

(LEX 18) — On Tuesday, the final votes in Kentucky’s Primary Election will be cast, and the national spotlight will likely be on Kentucky after national figures expressed their concerns about voter suppression.

The concerns began after the Washington Post published an article about Kentucky bracing for possible voting problems. The article mentioned that fewer than 200 polling places will be open on Tuesday. That number is down from the 3,700 Kentucky typically has in an election.

Hillary Clinton tweeted about the article.

“This is voter suppression,” said the tweet. “We need to restore the Voting Rights Act.”

Other national figures also expressed their concerns about Kentucky’s election.

“Voter suppression is no longer billy clubs & Jim Crow. It’s closed polling sites + 6 hr waits [without] pay. COVID is no excuse,” said Stacey Abrams.

“This primary on Tuesday is SO important and voting has become very confusing!” said Reese Witherspoon.

Lebron James tweeted, “This is SYSTEMIC RACISM and OPPRESSION. So angry man.”

The concern is that too few voting places will lead to voter suppression. However, local election experts say those concerns are overblown.

“The problem is that a lot of those tweets had some misinformation,” said Josh Douglas, a voting rights expert at the University of Kentucky. “A lot of the things I saw said something like ‘Louisville is going to have one polling place for over 600,000 voters.’ That’s simply not true. There are 600,000 registered voters in Louisville, but we know that over 220,000 of them have already requested a mail-in ballot. We know there’s been two weeks of early voting continuing to the day before Election Day.”

Many Kentucky counties, including the state’s two biggest - Jefferson and Fayette - will only have one in-person voting location. However, state leaders expanded mail-in voting to all registered voters in Kentucky.

Kentucky allowed all registered voters to request an absentee ballot. Some voters also had the option of voting early in-person. These are options all Kentucky voters typically do not have.

“People don’t realize that the election rules for this primary are better than we ever had here,” said Douglas. “You know, we never had early voting. We never had no-excuse absentee balloting, so we’ve expanded access a ton.”

Kentuckians utilized the options provided. Secretary of State Michael Adams said almost 890,000 absentee ballots were requested. As of this weekend, nearly 90,000 people voted early in-person, according to Adams.

“It’s simply not accurate to say that there’s one polling place for 600,000 voters in Louisville or one polling place for 200,000 voters in Lexington given the number of mail-in ballot requests that have gone out,” said Douglas.

It’s unknown how many absentee ballots will be correctly returned on time, but Douglas says the return rate in other states is significant.

“The return rate in other states that do a lot of vote-by-mail is usually around 80% or so,” said Douglas. “We know that a large percentage of those voters who requested a ballot are going to mail them back in.”

Since the voting options were changed to keep people safe during the pandemic, election officials reduced the number of in-person polling locations. It’s an effort to reduce the number of poll workers who could be exposed to the coronavirus.

Douglas advocated for more in-person polling locations, especially in the state’s major cities. However, he understands elections officials could not do that without enough poll workers.

“I think the cities and the counties should have provided more polling places if they could have. The problem is poll workers,” said Douglas. “They just don’t have enough poll workers. They know that people are not going to show up, unfortunately. I know, for example in Louisville, they contacted all the poll workers, and very few of them responded that they are going to work. Thankfully, they have enough, but they had to recruit as many people as possible to show up.”

“You get to a question - would you prefer ten polling places where [poll workers] don’t show up and you have massive lines?” asked Douglas. “Or one polling place with enough poll machines, enough poll workers, and you can allocate resources differently? It’s not ideal. We’re in a global pandemic. I truly think the election officials are doing the best that they can given very difficult circumstances.”

One of the concerns people have about one polling location is long lines for voters. Douglas believes it’s unlikely there will be an unmanageable amount of voters showing up to vote in-person.

“Yeah, you’re going to have lines. But you’re not talking - at least likely not talking - about the four or five-hour lines we saw in Georgia,” said Douglas. “Unless things are absolutely crazy, and we see turnout that no one could ever possibly predict.”

Based on the 890,000 mail-in ballot requests, more than a quarter of Kentucky’s nearly 3.5 million registered voters will participate in the state’s primary. That means voter turnout is already higher than Kentucky’s last big primary.

“Louisville’s highest turnout in a primary was in 2008 when Barack Obama was on the ballot for the first time, and turnout was about 192,000 total voters,” said Douglas. “We already had 220,000 voters request a mail-in ballot in Louisville, and we had tens of thousands of people vote early as well at one of the two early voting locations.”

Another concern some people have is about absentee ballots that have not been received yet. On Monday, the State Board of Elections passed a rule allowing voters who requested, but never received, mail-in ballots to vote in-person. Voters in that position can go to their polling location, and elections officials will cancel the absentee ballot request in the voter registration system. The voter can then cast a new ballot.