The double irony of Kentucky election reform

January 19, 2024 5:40 am

An election official talks to a voter on primary election day, May 16, 2023, at the Scott County Public Library in Georgetown. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Abbey Cutrer)

I believe that former state Sen. Charles Booker, the progressive who sought to challenge Mitch McConnell in 2020, fell short in his quest for the Democratic nomination due to progressive election reforms.

And while those changes have been scaled back dramatically, I believe that conservative efforts to eliminate the remnants of those policies would hurt conservative candidates in the future.

How’s that for a double irony?

Progressive reforms hurt the progressive

Charles Booker

My belief that Booker should have won might seem bold: He lost the 2020 primary by approximately 15,000 votes, earning 42.6% support versus Amy McGrath’s 45.4%.

Yet that primary took place at the height of the pandemic, at a time when Gov. Andy Beshear and Secretary of State Michael Adams had agreed to implement a laundry list of temporary policies typically favored by progressives:

  • The state accepted votes up to three weeks before the end of the race (called early voting).
  • Early votes could be cast in person, or voters could request absentee ballots on demand (called no-excuse absentee voting).
  • Absentee voters could submit ballots by post (called voting by mail), or by feeding them into thinly supervised receptacles (called drop boxes).
  • If voters insisted on waiting until Election Day to weigh in, most counties offered one centralized voting center, staffed with experienced election administrators able to resolve most hiccups.

Progressives endorse such policies because they make voting remarkably easy.

Democrats have a self-interested reason for desiring heavy turnout: Conventional wisdom holds that non-voters tilt their way. If so, eliminating the friction that keeps citizens from mobilizing would pump up Democratic vote totals.

Reforms do not necessarily work as intended. They might not bring equalization, and sometimes they backfire. Both happened with Booker.

Still, the push for broader participation isn’t purely cynical. Progressives emphasize equality (if not equity) with what can feel like religious zeal. Expanding participation fits with that core value.

So why would Kentucky’s pandemic policies, rooted in progressive interests and ideals, hinder the candidacy of a progressive — one who relied on support from the same citizens supposedly empowered by the rule adjustments?

Michael Adams. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Matthew Mueller)

Because reforms do not necessarily work as intended. They might not bring equalization, and sometimes they backfire. Both happened with Booker.

Booker promised to help people “from the hood to the holler,” but realistically, his candidacy depended on two constituencies: wealthy progressives and voters of color.

Shuttering local precinct stations hurt Booker with the latter. Compared to their co-partisans, Black voters tended to vote on Election Day, so making it harder indirectly suppressed Black participation.

Some counties located their vote centers far from the neighborhoods where many Black voters live. Chances of voting decline the farther one lives from a polling station. Citizens with inflexible work schedules or who lack reliable transport will feel the impact keenly.

Such obstacles to Black voting took dramatic form in Jefferson County, Booker’s home base. Louisvillians snarled in traffic after work could not reach the voting center in time, which left them banging on windows after the deadline. A judge kept the station open for an extra half hour, but we’ll never know how many Booker supporters gave up and turned around — or decided against tackling the burdensome journey in the first place.

Affluent professionals, though, love voting by mail — convenient given their (often desk-bound) occupations. Should have helped Booker, right?

No, that’s where the “early” comes in. Booker’s support rose rapidly in the waning days of the primary, thanks to his prominence during Black Lives Matter protests.

Had everyone been obligated to cast votes at the end of election season, progressives caught up in BLM revivalism could have swung Booker’s way. Instead, because reforms let voters jump the gun — some contacted local party officials later, vainly trying to switch their early votes — the primary did not capture their ultimate preferences.

We’ll never know exactly how much support premature voting cost Booker. And because the potential votes Booker lost are uncountable, I cannot prove pandemic-era reforms defeated him. But they surely hurt.

Conservative retrenchment might hurt conservatives

Still, some conservatives in the General Assembly failed to learn caution from how election-law changes backfired in 2020. Now, they want to undermine some lingering reforms that, in the future, ought to help their party.

Back during the pandemic, conservatives did not miss that Adams was embracing rules preferred by Democrats. Adams faced some backlash, but he defended the adjustments as a necessary response to COVID-19 — and the pandemic’s end allowed Adams to evaluate the experiments he and Beshear had conducted.

What’s amusing about Schickel’s bill is that it’s likely to hurt his own party (and not only due to voters being miffed about the added inconvenience).

Legislation Adams supported afterward rolled back most pandemic-era options for casting a ballot, while retaining some of the better reforms.

Voters still get to vote the weekend before Election Tuesday. As long as they’re willing to take the necessary steps, they still get to vote absentee without excuse. And while counties generally do not force everyone to vote at the same place, they were allowed to drop down to a smaller number of voting stations where the process could be handled efficiently.

John Schickel. (LRC Public Information)

Regrettably, Adams now finds himself feuding with Republicans who still think Kentucky’s election laws are too permissive. Newly filed legislation seeks to make absentee voting rare and end what’s left of no-excuse early voting.

I respect the underlying sentiment expressed by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Schickel: “Election Day is a very special day. It’s not something that should be taken on casually.” Still, restricting no-excuse early voting to just one weekend seems a modest accommodation to the difficulties faced by working Kentuckians with busy Tuesdays.

What’s amusing about Schickel’s bill is that it’s likely to hurt his own party (and not only due to voters being miffed about the added inconvenience). Heavier turnout might help Democrats nationally, but that hasn’t been true in Kentucky for a while. Even nationally, Republicans are struggling to turn out their historic supporters.

Lower-status white people have flocked to the GOP in the Trump era, and they’re the sort of voters most likely to be deterred by restrictive voting rules.

So while tightening election rules further might seem consistent with conservative interests and ideals, Republicans would be wiser to stick with the Adams-backed compromise. Inflexibility might well keep more Republican voters on the sidelines in coming elections, hurting conservative candidates.

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D. Stephen Voss
D. Stephen Voss

D. Stephen Voss is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, where he has worked since 1998. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, specializing in quantitative analysis, and began his research career studying Southern and Kentucky politics. More broadly, his research focuses on the politics of race, ethnicity and culture.