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The New York Times

Why Kentucky just became the only red state to expand voting rights

Jennifer Decker has strong conservative credentials. A first-term Republican lawmaker in the state of Kentucky who worked for Senator Rand Paul, she represents a county that voted for Donald Trump last year by nearly 30 percentage points. Yet, at a time when many of his Republican counterparts across the country are rushing to pass tough new restrictions on voting – fueled in part by Trump’s lies about the 2020 election – Decker’s first major bill has swerve. It was aimed at making it easier for citizens to vote in the state. Sign up for the New York Times The Morning newsletter Kentucky on Wednesday became the only state in the country to have a Republican-controlled legislature to expand voting rights after a bitter presidential election that tested the country’s democratic institutions. country and elevated access to the ballot box as a lively issue. for both parties. At a signing ceremony Wednesday, Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, hailed the bill as a bipartisan effort that has cut back against pressure in other Republican legislatures to erect voting barriers. “When much of the country implemented more restrictive laws, lawmakers in Kentucky, leaders in Kentucky were able to come together to defend democracy and expand the ability for people to vote,” Beshear said. The reasons Kentucky Republicans have diverged over voting rights range from politics to logistics. On the one hand, they had an easier sale: With sweeping new rules to keep the election safe during the coronavirus pandemic, Republicans in Kentucky have had one of their best cycles in years, the Senator Mitch McConnell and Trump having easily won in the state. . And expanding access to voting in Kentucky was a low bar to cross; the state had some of the toughest voting laws in the country before 2020, with not a single day of early voting and strict limits on absentee voting. The surge in Kentucky and other states – including Democrat-controlled Virginia, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii and Massachusetts – reflects a bizarre pandemic outcome: the toughest election in nearly one century has brought about considerable changes across the country to facilitate access to the ballot box. “We’ve done things a little differently because of COVID, and I just thought it might help us move forward,” Decker said in an interview. “And electoral reform must not be partisan. Partisan majorities can change at any time. Kentucky Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly supported and celebrated the bill, announcing it as a welcome bipartisan achievement. But supporters of the right to vote have been more quiet, pointing to the relatively limited scope of the legislation and its mix of measures, such as the introduction of a short period of early voting, as well as new restrictions announced under the banner of the electoral security. They warn the proposal represents a modest improvement in a state long hostile to voting rights – a fact even the Tories have recognized. “Kentucky had probably, so far, the most restrictive voting laws in the country,” said Michael Adams, the Republican Secretary of State, who was the main force behind the bill. “And that’s what we’re trying to change.” Indeed, even with its newly expanded voting access, Kentucky’s voting rules remain comparatively stricter than those in Georgia, which recently overhauled its electoral system with new restrictions on voting. Even under the new Georgian law, for example, the state still has no excuse for absentee voting and a much longer voting period than Kentucky. Kentucky law establishes three days of early voting in the state; introduced voting centers that would provide more options for in-person voting; creates an online portal to register and request ballots; and enables voters to resolve problems with mail-in ballots, a process known as healing. Voting rights experts note that three days of early voting is still a short window compared to other states that offer the process, and that the law does not contain a provision for voting absentees without excuse. It also includes restrictions such as a ban on the collection of ballots, a practice in which one person collects and deposits the ballots of multiple voters. Almost all of the country’s current efforts to expand access to the vote are taking place in states with Democratic-led legislatures, and they go much further in expanding access to the ballot than does the country’s law. Kentucky. Connecticut is trying to make the absentee vote without excuse permanent after the method worked successfully in last year’s election, and Delaware is working on a constitutional amendment to add absentee voting without excuse. Hawaii is moving towards the introduction of automatic voter registration. And Massachusetts is seeking a host of changes, including the addition of same-day voter registration and the extension of early voting. “The 2020 election gives them confidence that they could act quickly to expand access and not have to take it slow,” Sylvia Albert, director of the Common Cause voting rights group, said of these comments. States. She said Kentucky does not fall under the category of true expansion because its new law will offer fewer options than the emergency ordinances of 2020. “It could be a political calculation made by Democrats in the state. , so that the Republicans do not leave. even more by suppressing the vote as other states have done ”, she declared. “But as an election, voter access bill, it doesn’t succeed. While the Kentucky compromise – expanding access to the vote while adopting more restrictive policies in the name of electoral security – could serve as a model for other Republican-controlled states, it is more likely to be a failure. in a year of GOP-led pressure for the vote. restrictions. Indeed, it is a unique set of circumstances and an unlikely coalition in Kentucky that has led the state to take the first steps in a generation to expand access to the vote. Right after a successful free, fair and secure election with a host of temporary politicians during the pandemic, Adams began the dedicated task of polling county election administrators about the new rules. He expected complaints, but instead found strong support for some of the measures, particularly the multiple days of early voting. Adams therefore approached the Republican leadership of the Legislature to assess their interest in adopting some of the policies. After a 2020 election in which Republicans won seats in the state legislature and McConnell won an easy victory, Kentucky GOP leaders had a much different political calculation than Republicans in Georgia , who saw their state turn blue for the first time in a generation. . They were open, they said, but not necessarily keen to shake things up. “The hardest part at first was finding a sponsor,” Adams said, “because it was considered so unlikely that no one wanted to be the sponsor.” Enter Paul. The young Kentucky senator, who is due for re-election next year and has repeatedly made false statements about the 2020 election, had contacted Adams with his own concerns about Kentucky’s election law. But he soon came to the idea of ​​a compromise effort, widening some access points while limiting others. And he had an idea for a sponsor: Decker, who had been interested in an electoral overhaul after the high turnout in the vote last year. “I was a longtime Republican, I was chairman of the Republican Party in my riding for a long time, and I never felt voter turnout was anything but good,” Decker said. The bill quickly began to gain momentum in the Legislature. And the Democrats, who watched the effort with suspicion, would soon join them. “We’ve seen a bill come forward this year, and you have to recognize some Kentucky political realities,” said Morgan McGarvey, the Democratic Minority Leader in the state Senate. “This bill does not do everything I would like to see in an electoral reform law, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. For years, Democrats in the state legislature had worked to expand the vote in Kentucky, both by introducing big, transformative bills that never had a chance to pass, and by reducing efforts, such as simply seeking to keep polling stations open until 8 p.m. (Kentucky currently closes polling at 6 p.m. on polling day, the first closing time in the country along with that in Indiana .) The party has been systematically pushed back by the state Senate, which has been Republican controlled since 1999. “No one can argue: This expands voting options in Kentucky,” McGarvey said. “Every Kentuckian has more choices about when and how to vote than before this law. So this is something that we have been fighting for years, and I am not going to slow it down. Republicans were quick to praise the bill. Paul said in a statement he was “proud” of the effort and that it would ensure that “our elections are fair and accessible.” The Honest Elections Project, a conservative group that has joined legal efforts to revoke access to the vote, said the bill struck “a balance” on “the need for access and security.” Joshua Douglas, a professor of electoral law at the University of Kentucky who was part of a small team of county election officials and other experts who consulted Adams on the initial effort, said that “it’s not the bill that I would have drafted in any way. . He added: “But there are a lot of things that I like and not a ton that I hate.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company



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