By Cameron Newton
When the dust settled following the contentious 2019 elections in Kentucky, each of the commonwealth’s major executive offices—save for the governorship—was won by the Republican candidate. While the election of Andy Beshear brought control of the Governor’s Mansion back into Democratic hands, perhaps the night’s most shocking result came as Michael Adams, an election lawyer with a history in Republican politics, upset former Miss America Heather French Henry in the race for Secretary of State. No thinking observer would have anticipated emerging election policy to be anything but crafted and contested along rigid ideological boundaries.
However, in the roughly three months between the emergence of COVID-19 on the national stage and the Kentucky primary elections (which had been pushed back to June 23), Governor Beshear and Secretary Adams surprised the bulk of Kentuckians by forging a pandemic voting plan that involved “no-excuse access to absentee voting by mail and early in-person voting on weekdays for two weeks prior to the election.” Ultimately, at least “70% of the million-plus primary voters cast their ballot by mail, leading to the highest turnout for a Kentucky primary in over a decade.”
Despite the acclaim the plan received from many within the state, it drew plenty of criticism from outside observers, including LeBron James, Hillary Clinton, and Jennifer Lawrence. Using the hashtag “#AllEyesOnKentucky”, Twitter users were attempting to draw attention to perceived voter suppression stemming from the compromise plan’s provision that many counties within the state, including Jefferson County, would contain only one polling place.
Now, before the polling place controversy even became national news, a complaint had already been filed in federal court in the Western District of Kentucky by State Representative Jason Nemes, who represents a portion of northeast Jefferson County. Among other things, the complaint claimed that the election plan violated both the 1st and 14th Amendments as well as Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Specifically, the latter claims contended that the existence of only a single polling location in areas such as Fayette County and Jefferson County, the largest such jurisdictions in the state and where three-fifths of all Black Kentuckians reside, constituted raced-based vote suppression, violating the VRA.
Ultimately, the court denied the injunction request, holding that it found no constitutional or VRA violations. The court held that, in context of the primary plan unveiled by Secretary Adams that gave voters plenty of other options besides in-person voting, there was provided “no relevant statistical evidence that a single polling location for in-person voting on Election Day will necessarily result in a cognizable, racially disparate impact such that Blacks will be afforded ‘less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process.’”
Of course, that result did not bring an end to the legal challenges. New issues soon arose as both the League of Women Voters of Kentucky, the Kentucky NAACP, and the Louisville Urban League became parties in Collins v. Adams, a suit filed on August 19 against Secretary Adams and Governor Beshear, among others. The amended complaint charged that Kentucky’s “onerous” photo ID law required voters to “risk  exposure to the virus by forcing them to visit ID-issuing offices and/or copy centers” in order to exercise their right. The complaint also sought to force Kentucky officials to apply the election accommodations they made during the June primary to the upcoming November general election. Similar to the Nemes lawsuit, plaintiffs here claimed that Kentucky’s aforementioned actions violated both the 1st and 14thAmendments to the U.S. Constitution.
However, one might be surprised to find that neither case mentioned above is currently active. Indeed, the plaintiffs in Nemes withdrew their complaint because Secretary Adams declared “that he will not permit single polling locations in Kentucky’s largest counties in the November general election.” Additionally, the parties in Collins agreed to a joint stipulation of dismissal on August 27, days after a compromise plan was unveiled by Secretary Adams and Governor Beshear.
In their plan, “any registered voter concerned about contracting COVID-19 by casting a ballot in person can request an absentee ballot through the state’s online portal and submit it through the mail or in designated drop-off boxes in their home county. Voters may also vote early and in-person in the three weeks leading up to Election Day on Nov. 3, including on Saturdays.” These changes, similar to the compromise plan enacted for the June primary, alleviated the concernsexpressed by the plaintiffs in Collins.
Despite the vociferous virtual vitriol launched at Kentucky officials because of perceived voter suppression, the Commonwealth has stood out as a prime example of bipartisan, responsive decision making. As a result of compromise and an effort to learn from and respond to voter complaints, Kentucky voters have seen their options expanded greatly for the upcoming election. In a year rife with uncertainty and unease surrounding what is perhaps the most sacred act an American can participate in, other jurisdictions could learn something from the ways in which Kentucky has enhanced voter safety and choice without sacrificing integrity.