It has been my great honor to serve as the Chairman of the Kentucky State Board of Elections (SBE) over the past year. While it has been a trying year, fraught with difficult times and equally difficult decisions, it is also a year that has provided opportunities to show the benefits of modernizing the Commonwealth’s election systems while temporarily changing the method of its elections to account for the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. I write this letter to both recognize those responsible for its unqualified success and to discuss how we move forward in modernizing Kentucky’s elections on a permanent basis.
I would like to start by thanking Governor Andy Beshear and Secretary Michael Adams for their leadership and statesmanship. In a time of increasing polarization and partisan acrimony, both the Governor and Secretary have shown the need for and success of bipartisan cooperation. Their willingness to work across party lines not only provided for a successful election, it also most certainly saved lives.
Voters across Kentucky owe a debt of gratitude to the Commonwealth’s 120 County Clerks, their staff and the thousands of poll workers and volunteers who worked tirelessly every day under the most difficult circumstances. Their faithful dedication to our elections kept us safe while administering free, fair and secure elections.
I must also publicly acknowledge leadership shown by SBE Executive Director, Jared Dearing as well as the efforts of all the SBE staff. Their ability to draft a thoughtful and reasoned elections plan used by the Governor and Secretary was the foundation of our ultimate success.
Last but not least, I’d like to thank my fellow members of the State Board of Elections for their consummate professionalism throughout this process.
Despite dramatically changing the regulations and guidelines that govern our elections, Kentucky is not in the headlines as so many other states have been over the past few weeks. Unlike many other states who were forced to accommodate for elections under pandemic conditions, including the changes in voter behavior, Kentucky had the underlying legal ability to account for the current state of emergency through emergency regulation. Without the ability to change the method of our election or had the specter of unreasonable partisanship ruled our decisions, voters would have also been forced to choose between casting their ballot and placing themselves or their family members at unacceptable health risk.
During the 2020 Kentucky presidential election a record number of voters exercised their right to vote. Some cast their ballot by mail, some voted early in person and many voted on Election Day. Because we were able to distribute access to the ballot across these three voting methods, county clerks and poll workers were not overwhelmed, and voters had choices for what suited their needs best. These changes coupled with new layers of security added to the elections system by the State Board of Elections ensured this election was one of the most successful and secure in the Commonwealth’s history.
For decades, Kentucky has lagged behind many of our peer states in modernizing our elections. While the need to change our elections this year was necessary to ensure safe and secure access during the pandemic, it has also highlighted the need to incorporate many of these changes permanently. The General Assembly should take into consideration these seven recommendations:
1. Expand access to early voting. While three weeks was needed for this election due to the pandemic, legislators should consider making at least 10 days, including two weekends, of early no-excuse in-person voting permanent.
2. Make permanent the ability to apply for an absentee ballot through the online portal created by the State Board of Elections and the ability to track those absentee ballots through barcodes in all future elections. The value added to the voter both in access and security cannot be overstated.
3. Expand access to absentee ballots to voters who cannot vote in-person due to work conflict, including, but not limited to, first responders and healthcare workers.
4. Make permanent all ballot irregularity cures and guidelines.
5. Allow for the use of secure drop boxes.
6. Support the establishment of voting centers. While local precinct locations should be maintained, voting centers give voters greater access to the polls; if implemented correctly, voting centers decrease election costs to the counties and to the state as well as help with the shortage of poll worker volunteers.
7. Maintain the system of checks and balances that allowed the Governor, Secretary of State and the independent bipartisan State Board of Elections to implement emergency regulations. The flexibility to act during a time of emergency was paramount to our successful election, this law must not be removed by the Legislature.
For many years advocates have called for these changes, but partisanship and political interests have slowed or stopped advancements. Many of the claims that have routinely been used against modernizing our election processes have been definitively proven wrong this election cycle. Access to the ballot does not benefit either the Democratic or Republican parties, it only benefits Kentucky voters. If you agree with me, I highly recommend you contact your state legislators to let them know how we should move forward together.
Ben Chandler is Chairman of the Kentucky State Board of Elections.