While national voices claim 'voter suppression,' Kentucky on pace for record voter turnout
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — While national Democrats, athletes and celebrities are saying Kentucky's rescheduled primary is an attempt at voter suppression, the Bluegrass State is on its way to a possible record turnout in Tuesday's primary election.
Kentucky received high marks months ago when Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams agreed to allow registered voters to mail in absentee ballots to avoid in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the plan, Kentuckians have also been allowed to vote in-person since June 15, a week ahead of the new primary date.
"If the governor and I are both suppressors, we're doing a terrible job because we've got the highest turnout we've ever seen — and that's the bottom line," Adams told The Courier Journal on Monday.
Critics of Kentucky's plan have ranged in the past few days from NBA star LeBron James to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Adams said as of Monday morning, nearly 1 million Kentuckians — 973,807 — have either requested an absentee ballot or voted early before Tuesday's primary. As of Monday evening, county clerks across the state had received more than 503,400 of those ballots back in the mail.
The high-water mark for a Kentucky primary election came in 2008, when 922,456 residents voted.
"I am worried that know-nothing, angry people from New York and California will call us and they'll block out people from rural and urban Kentucky who are trying to find out where to go vote," Adams said. "That is voter suppression."
During his Monday afternoon press conference, Beshear said the expected record turnout for a Kentucky primary is "the opposite of voter suppression."
Jefferson County is one of the Kentucky counties on pace for a record turnout.
As of Monday morning, the Jefferson County Clerk’s office had reported mailing 218,404 absentee ballots to registered voters, in addition to 7,493 who had voted early at the Kentucky Exposition Center last week. More than 96,000 residents have already mailed back their ballots.
And that figure didn't account for those who voted at the office’s election center — the county's other early-voting location — over the past two weeks.
The suddenly competitive race to find a Democratic challenger for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the fall has drawn national interest to Kentucky's primary.
Over the weekend, liberals across the nation have been torching the Bluegrass State with claims that voters — particularly Black residents — would be disenfranchised.
Many referenced a Saturday piece in The Washington Post, which called attention to how there would be fewer than 200 polling places in the state compared to about 3,700 in a typical election year.
Others swarmed onto how Louisville, which is 真人百家家乐官网网站home to the state's largest Black population, would have only one polling location, at the expo center at the state fairgrounds.
The U.S. Senate campaign of Democrat Charles Booker was among the first to ignite the narrative that the state's primary was turning into an effort to keep minorities from voting.
"This is a recipe for disaster," Booker deputy campaign manager Shante Wolfe said in a fundraising email obtained by The Courier Journal. "Long lines and understaffed polling places, coupled with expected high turnout in the coronavirus pandemic, will make it difficult for many voters to safely cast their ballots."
Booker, a Black state legislator from Louisville, has been surging against Democratic rival Amy McGrath, who is white, in the final weeks of the contest.
The Booker campaign, which didn't attempt to join a legal challenge against the state to expand voting locations as McGrath's campaign did on June 12, cast the limited polling places for the in-person primary as a plan to quash his historic bid to be the first Black nominee in the state Democratic Party's history.
"Reducing polling places by 95% in a historic primary under the guise of public health is nothing short of voter suppression — and we won't stand for it," Wolfe said in the email to supporters.
Booker's message quickly spread to national Democratic figures and celebrities who echoed those concerns.
"Voter suppression is no longer billy clubs and Jim Crow," former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams said in a June 20 tweet hours after the Booker fundraising email went out.
Abrams, a Democrat, has become a major voice to expand voting rights since barely losing her 2018 campaign to Republican Brian Kemp. She is among those on the rumored short list to be the running mate for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in 2020.
"(Kentucky's) closed polling sites plus 6 hours waits without pay," Abrams added on Twitter. "COVID is no excuse. Who needs to vote in person? The disabled. The 真人百家家乐官网网站homeless or displaced. Voters with language barriers. Folks who didn’t get their ballots in time. Americans."
James said in a June 20 tweet to his roughly 46.5 million followers how Kentucky's primary on Tuesday was "systemic racism and oppression."
"So angry man," he tweeted.
Others such as Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay decried how Kentucky was using the COVID-19 pandemic, "as an excuse to slash polling places" before encouraging followers to give the Booker campaign cash to help bus voters to the polls.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who lost Kentucky in 2016 by about 30 percentage points, also weighed in.
"This is voter suppression," Clinton said in a tweet on Monday. "We need to restore the Voting Rights Act."
Keeping voters from the polls, particularly Black and Hispanic residents, is an alarm bell for Democrats nationwide, given how those communities represent a large bulk of their base.
In Kentucky, Beshear was praised by left-leaning supporters when he signed an executive order in December 2019 restoring the right to vote for about 170,000 residents, who had completed sentences for nonviolent felonies.
Supporters also credited the governor for taking on Republicans when he vetoed a bill favored by the GOP-controlled legislature that would have required Kentuckians to have a photo identification to vote. The legislature overrode the veto, however, and the law will take effect for the general election.
Louisville NAACP President Raoul Cunningham, a longtime civil rights activist in the state, said he didn't agree with the state's decision to reduce the number of polling places, but he thinks the state should receive credit for allowing mail-in and early voting this year.
"This is a totally different election than any of us have experienced in Kentucky," he said. "I also would hope that because of the way this election is being conducted that Kentucky will reevaluate and change the way we vote permanently."
Cunningham, who sits on the NAACP's national board, said he saw a diverse crowd voting at the exposition center on Friday afternoon. He said the Tuesday primary isn't an effort to suppress Black voters.
"I was concerned if the African American vote would be suppressed, but I really don't think it will be," Cunningham said.
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On Monday, Beshear said he hoped mail-in and early-voting measures will be continued in the general election this fall.
"We've had mail-in voting for the first time in our history. I think that's the opposite of voter suppression," Beshear said. "We've had no-excuse early voting for the first time in our history. I think that's the opposite of voter suppression. We've had 170,000 people have their voting rights restored, which is I think the opposite of voter suppression. Now, that doesn't fit in Twitter very easily."
A federal judge on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit filed two weeks ago by Jefferson County voters and two elected officials of each party, which sought for the clerk's office in Jefferson County and four of the state's most populous counties to open more polling locations.
The plaintiffs alleged that failure to allow more places to vote would amount to "significant voter suppression," thought the judge did not find any constitutional or statutory violation.
Adams, the secretary of state, said election officials don't know precisely what the June 23 election will look like in terms of turnout.
Various factors will come into play across the state's 120 counties on Tuesday, but the chief election officer said he doesn't expect long lines of people waiting to vote for up to six hours, as was seen in other parts of the country.
"We do think there will be lines of 30 to 45 minutes, it could be longer," he said. "We don't think there will be lines of people until 1 a.m. like in Washington, D.C."
Jared Dearing, the executive director of the State Board of Elections, said Monday that they expect about 90% of voters who receive an absentee ballot to return it in the mail.
If that figure holds true, Jefferson County, for instance, would have the highest turnout for a primary in its history and easily would surpass the 192,630 that turned out in the popular 2008 primary — in which Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were still battling for the Democratic presidential nomination — without even accounting for those who vote in person on Election Day.
More than 39% of registered voters cast a ballot in Jefferson County in that 2008 primary, including a slight majority of all registered Democrats.
In 2016, the most recent presidential election year, statistics show 138,619 people in Jefferson County voted, with a turnout rate of 24%.
The number of voters receiving an absentee ballot by mail plus those who had voted early at the exposition center last week accounts for over 36% of registered voters in Jefferson County, without taking into account how many will turned out to vote early on Monday or on Election Day.
Dearing said because misinformation is being spread on social media by activists and others, his office is distracted from helping Kentuckians who need help appropriately filling out their ballot, getting it in the mail correctly and finding their voting locations.
"For every person from outside of the state that's calling our office, we are not on the phone with someone who does live in our state," he said. "And the reality is, is that someone went on Twitter and said that 600,000 people are voting in one location. That is definitively not the case.”
Reach Phillip M. Bailey at @phillipmbailey.
Reach Joe Sonka at @joesonka.