In the wake of Trump’s 2020 loss and the subsequent Big Lie about widespread voter fraud, many Republican-controlled state governments are doing everything they can to restrict voting rights in ways that will allow them to stay in power. In Texas, Republicans are introducing “election integrity” legislation that is really about making it harder to vote. Such a bill has already signed into law in Georgia, creating some of the harshest voting restrictions in the country. Yet amid the intense fight over voting rights across the country, the conservative state of Kentucky has a bill that actually makes it easier to vote, and it has bipartisan support.
It may come as a surprise that the state that Mitch McConnell calls home would even consider such legislation, but Kentucky’s election reform came as a result of measures implemented in response to COVID-19. “In 2020, Kentucky’s Democratic governor and Republican secretary of state worked together to expand voting procedures during COVID-19, with early voting, no excuse absentee voting for all, and voting supercenters and ballot dropboxes where people could vote regardless of precinct,” said state Rep. Josie Raymond, a Democrat who represents District 31 in the Kentucky House. “It was universally popular and resulted in near record turnout.”
Raymond explained to the Signal that Kentuckians wanted some of these reforms to become permanent after 2020. The result was HB 574.
The bill allows for three days of early voting, which may not sound like much but
Kentucky had no in-person early voting at all prior to 2020. The ballot dropboxes and voting supercenters will be made permanent. And while absentee voting will once again require an excuse, HB 574 leaves up the online portal through which voters can request an absentee ballot (previously they had to receive an application via mail then mail it back to the county clerk).
Last month, HB 574 passed the House 93-3, and last week it passed the Senate 33-3. The bill is now going back to the House for concurrence with minor amendments made by the Senate. Should it pass the House again and end up on Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk, it will almost certainly be signed into law.
In today’s polarized environment, it seems like a miracle that a bill on something like election reform received such overwhelming support, especially in a state legislature dominated by the GOP. “It got bipartisan support in House and Senate votes because Democrats think this good progress doesn’t go far enough but is worthwhile, and Republicans know how popular the reforms were with voters last fall and wanted to do something,” Raymond said.
In addition, HB 574 has some election security measures that Republicans tend to favor. For example, the bill bans so-called ballot harvesting and makes it easier to remove people from the voter rolls who have moved out of state.
As Texas gears up for a long, partisan battle over voting rights, HB 174 could serve as a model for how to achieve a compromise on such a contentious issue. “Other states could look to it as a bipartisan solution that offers some reforms but does not fundamentally change any existing election security measures,” Raymond told the Signal.
Indeed, activists weren’t completely happy with HB 174 and felt that it should have gone further. But that’s the nature of compromise, no one gets everything they want but everyone gets some of the things they want. If Democrats want to preserve and expand voting rights in Texas, then a compromise with the legislature’s GOP majority is the best they can hope for. But Kentucky’s experience shows that perhaps it’s not as naive of a hope as one might think in the current political climate. Granted, there are major differences between Kentucky and Texas, not the least of which is that the GOP’s greatest fear is Texas turning blue. But Republican fears that higher turnout will automatically benefit Democrats may be overblown, indeed the GOP managed to win once again in Texas despite the highest turnout in decades. A Kentucky-style reform that makes voting easier but still makes concessions to Republicans might yet be possible in Texas.
The German statesman Otto von Bismarck said that politics is the art of the possible, a quote that was recently repeated by President Joe Biden. Kentucky has just demonstrated what’s possible. Other states, especially Texas, should take notice.
Photo: Mobilus in Mobili / Wikimedia Commons