Kentucky's pandemic primary was no "disaster," but there's work to do before November

A "disaster" predicted in Louisville didn't materialize. That doesn't mean disenfranchisement isn't happening

By Erin Keane

Chief Content Officer

Published June 26, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

General view of voters during Tuesdays Kentucky primary election on June 23, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. The Kentucky Exposition Center is the only polling location for Tuesday's Kentucky primary in Jefferson County, home to Louisville and 767,000 residents. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
General view of voters during Tuesdays Kentucky primary election on June 23, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. The Kentucky Exposition Center is the only polling location for Tuesday's Kentucky primary in Jefferson County, home to Louisville and 767,000 residents. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

As dramatic video clips go, this one was destined to go viral. Jacob Ryan, a reporter with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting at Louisville Public Media (and a former colleague of mine at WFPL News), posted a video on Twitter of dozens of people banging on the doors of the Kentucky Exposition Center, which had been locked by election workers minutes earlier when the clock struck 6 p.m. and the polls officially closed, as they do every Election Day.

"The people want to vote," Jake's straightforward, powerful caption reads.

Here was the confrontation between the system and voters that outside observers had expected since the upshot of Kentucky's pandemic election primary protocols went viral last weekend: Jefferson County's 623 voting precincts, representing about 600,000 registered voters and several hundred polling places in a normal year, would be funneled into one in-person voting location for the entire county as part of a statewide plan to mitigate possible coronavirus outbreaks, especially among the aging and at-risk election worker volunteer base. 

"This is going to be a disaster," voting rights expert Ari Berman warned last Friday.

Kentucky's COVID-19 primary voting plan raised alarms, prompting #AllEyesonKentucky to trend. A justified fear of voter suppression, after egregiously long lines in Georgia and Wisconsin primaries shocked the country, had watchdog groups and concerned individuals on high alert for efforts to suppress votes in Black communities in particular.

"People are understandably tense, especially when you look at Wisconsin and you see folks forced to stand in line to vote in the middle of a pandemic in Milwaukee with five of 180 precincts open," said David Daley, formerly Salon's editor in chief, now a senior fellow at FairVote and author of "Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy," in a conversation about this election. "Or when you look at people waiting in line for five, six, seven hours in Atlanta, where people still believe the voting roll purges and registration pauses and all kinds of chicanery in an election administered by Secretary of State Brian Kemp helped him defeat Stacey Abrams by 53,000 votes to become governor."

The long lines that plagued Wisconsin and Georgia didn't materialize in Louisville. (Lexington, the state's second-largest city, was another story.) A key detail the "600,000 registered voters for one polling place" skipped over, which certainly played a part in the Expo Center site running smoothly until the last minute, is how many Jefferson County voters didn't have to show up in person on Tuesday to vote, due to new measures implemented in the pandemic plan. 

No-excuse absentee voting via mail-in ballots — and in some places, including Louisville, early in-person voting — were allowed for the first time, to help people vote while staying away from the polls to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. In Jefferson County, 225,000 voters had already requested absentee ballots or voted early in person (also allowed for the first time) before Tuesday. This is a clear victory for voting access. But it doesn't necessarily mean Jefferson County did everything it could do to make sure everyone had equal access to the polls.

"If you only have one [in-person voting] location, that is potentially disenfranchising, when it's easier for some people with flexible jobs and better transportation to cast a ballot than those who don't have those advantages," said Daley. "You're certainly calling the concept of 'one person, one vote' into question."

Here's what observing Election Day at the Expo Center couldn't tell us: how many of the 360,000 registered voters who didn't vote early or absentee still wanted to vote in Tuesday's primary, but were not able to get to the Expo Center on time, or at all, due to transportation issues or work schedules or any other reason that disproportionately affects lower-income and minority voters. The unofficial in-person voting tally for Jefferson County has been reported as nearly 15,000. We don't have data yet on participation by precinct, but it should be studied carefully to help inform the plan for the general election in November, when President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are both up for re-election.

With such an important Senate race on the line, it will be crucial to ensure that every person who wants to vote can. Nationally, November's turnout is expected to surge. After all, the 2018 midterm elections saw record participation with a 53% turnout, the highest for any midterm since 1914. But only 46% of Kentucky voters cast ballots in that election.

"If we're going to have an election in the middle of a pandemic, we need a robust vote-by-mail system," said Daley. "We also really need a robust structure for in-person voting," said Daley. "I think what we have seen in multiple states so far is that we've got a lot of work to do on both fronts."

*  *  *

The dramatic incident captured on video came at the tail end of an election day deemed a smash turnout success. Fantastic news, until you consider how low turnout for a primary election in Kentucky usually is.

Irritation — and I own up to being one of those irritated parties — over the lack of context in the #AllEyesOnKentucky outcry allowed many Kentuckians to focus too much on what other people were getting wrong about the bipartisan deal made by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican (and former classmate of mine — we've disagreed about politics and Rush since seventh grade), and not enough on the full picture ourselves. In many ways it turned into nitpicking over the naming of the trees that, if continued, will only distract us from saving a forest struggling to thrive.

In the 2019 primary, with three high-profile Democrats vying for the nod to take down absurdly unpopular first-term governor Matt Bevin, a lackluster 20% statewide turnout exceeded officials' expectations. The previous record-breaking primary, in 2008, netted a mere 32% turnout. Breaking a record this summer, when people have been urged daily by Beshear to "stay healthy at home" to flatten the coronavirus infection curve, makes a powerful case that the pandemic plan wasn't being leveraged deliberately to suppress votes. But when turnout is normally so low that 33% is a smash hit, it raises serious questions about whether systemic barriers to voting access are already baked into the system. 

In a state with election laws such as Kentucky's, business as usual means that disenfranchisement can squeeze potential voters out as a matter of course, even without pandemic-related obstacles. Kentucky typically allows very few reasons for absentee voting, and little to no early voting. The state has closed primaries and no same-day registration, and its 6 p.m. closing time is the earliest in the nation (along with neighboring Indiana). 

Whether Kentucky's pandemic primary, which included some expansions of access but introduced geographic restrictions, was a success or a warning bell depends, in some ways, on whether you see a high rate of registered voters not casting ballots as a personal or systemic failure. In some ways, this divide of perspective reveals a fundamental rift in the American understanding of what a vote should be.

Those who subscribe to one school of thought might see turnout as a responsibility issue. In this reading, voting is a privilege, and, as Daley put it, "You ought to be willing to bike over a mountain with boulders strapped to your back in order to cast the vote.

"I find people that making that argument usually live in comfortable suburban homes that don't have any lines at the polls," he added. 

There's another school of thought that says voting should be easier because, as Daley says, "This is our fundamental civic voice. Instead of putting barriers between citizens and the ballot box, how about if we take [the barriers] away?"

*  *  *

A steady stream of voters moved with in-and-out efficiency through the Kentucky Exposition Center on Tuesday. The site, home of Kentucky's state fairgrounds and located near the geographical center of the county at the junction of two major expressways, includes plentiful free parking. The 350 voting machines appear to have worked. Occasional echoes of cheers erupting from poll workers celebrating first-time voters bounced through the cavernous South Wing. As Courier Journal politics reporter (and recent Pulitzer Prize winner) Joe Sonka quipped, the longest lines of the day appeared to be for the food trucks outside. 

Still, just after 6 p.m., as Ryan's video showed, the doors to the Expo Center were locked by staff after the polls officially closed. And some people who took the time and effort to travel to the Expo Center, who clearly wanted to cast their votes in this election, were locked out at the last second. They were so close. They seemed, quite understandably, furious about it. And then the world saw, and shared their frustration and outrage, and said we told you so. 

Yes, if you were in line, you could stay in line and vote. But where did the line start at this huge building, with its massive parking lot? Inside the doors, on the sidewalk, inside the fairgrounds gates? It wasn't clear to the final group of would-be voters, who seemed to believe they had made it in time. 

Booker filed an injunction to keep the polls open until 9 p.m. to accommodate latecomers. Judge Annie O'Connell (in another very Kentucky disclosure, she was once my lawyer) arrived on the scene and extended the vote to 6:30. With that the doors opened, and the people, cheering, streamed in to exercise their right.  

You'd be forgiven for attributing the 6 p.m. lockdown to new and sneaky rules, but Kentucky closes the polls early in every single election. I'm not the only Kentuckian who grew up in a house with parents who pulled 12-hour shifts. Expanding our voting hours permanently to at least 8 p.m. would make Election Day truly accessible to more working people.

There's a state bill currently in committee to would allow in-person voting for the three Saturdays leading up to any election day, too. That, along with making permanent this primary's early weekday in-person voting and no-excuse absentee ballots, would give more voters — especially the workers we've now deemed "essential" in this pandemic — more level access.

"Why can't we have more early voting? Why can't we have more vote-by-mail? Why can't we have ranked choice voting? Why can't Election Day be a holiday?" said Daley. "A lot of the structures and rules and mechanisms around voting simply don't make sense. We have lived with them for so long that we accept them as the rules, but we haven't questioned why they're there, or if those rules are still serving a purpose. Or if, in fact, the purpose that some of those roles served was to create artificial barriers."

*  *  *

I am a highly resourced voter facing no meaningful systemic barriers. I voted early by mail and still ran into problems.

Here's how it went for me. Beshear wanted ballots mailed automatically to every registered voter and Adams disagreed, so those who registered in time to vote in this primary and wanted to vote absentee had to request a ballot, citing fear of coronavirus as the reason.

I applied online and then received a paper application in the mail, which I had to mail back in order to receive my actual ballot in the mail. While I appreciated the convenience of voting from home, it's too many steps and it's too confusing. Go ahead and just mail ballots to voters — that's what Oregon does, and their turnout is high. 

Once I received my actual ballot, I filled it out and dropped it in the mail. That, apparently, was my first mistake.

When I tried to track it via the state's online portal, I learned the county did have a record of my ballot being mailed to me, but no record of receiving it back, though I had mailed it weeks earlier. I confirmed this on the phone with a real person in the county clerk's office on Tuesday morning. So I decided to go to the Expo Center on Tuesday to rectify this through official channels, to void my absentee ballot and vote in person.

The process involved waiting in line to appear in person before the local Board of Elections. Due to social distancing, that took the form of a conversation with a disembodied voice via speakerphone, which admonished me for trusting the Postal Service instead of dropping the ballot off at the elections office, before promising a personal follow-up from "Stephanie" if anyone ever finds my ballot.

Now, I can burn an hour and a half wandering from official to official asking pain-in-the-ass questions and seeing this "Parks & Rec"-esque scenario through to its frustrating end, because it is literally my job. A normal person wouldn't go through this to make sure their vote would be counted. If voting is a right, we shouldn't treat it like a quest. You shouldn't have to win a boss battle just to make it to the ballot box. 

I still have no idea what happened to my ballot after I dropped it in the mail. All I can do is watch this weirdly hypnotic livestream of the ballots being processed and hope it's in there somewhere. Meanwhile, the online portal is now gaslighting me, saying that my ballot was never issued at all. Stephanie has yet to call. 

*  *  *

Overall, though, voting by absentee ballot works perfectly well for most people. Kentucky should expand to a true vote-by-mail program that automatically mails ballots to all registered voters. But absentee can't and shouldn't entirely take the place entirely of in-person voting. Young people and people who are housing-insecure move frequently. Mail, as I've learned, gets lost. People who work several jobs while taking care of dependents don't need yet another date to remember — the deadline to request a ballot — aside from Election Day. If voting is allowed up until the close of polls on Election Day, we need to make it accessible and safe to do so, no matter when in the season a voter becomes engaged with the election. 

The pandemic presents unique safety challenges, but it can't be blamed for all of Kentucky's access issues, nor should the relative success of the Beshear/Adams emergency plan be used to wave away the ongoing obstacles voters still face, given the percentage who don't vote, in disaster times or otherwise.

There may be no going back to a normal number of polling sites before a vaccine or other robust coronavirus preventative measures are in place, not to mention a surge in younger poll workers to stand in for an older, at-risk volunteer base. We don't know yet what November's voting plan will look like, but the clock is ticking.  

"We have four and a half months to iron out all the details," Daley said. "It's going to take funding, it's going to take organization, it's going to take training. And it's going to take a really honest and long look at what has worked and what has not worked so far, to try to figure out the most responsible next steps.

"And all of that has to happen against a backdrop in which voting access is increasingly becoming a partisan political football."

Daley reminded me that this Thursday marked the seventh anniversary of Shelby County vs. Holder, which gutted the enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act that had required states to submit proposed changes to their election laws to the Department of Justice, where they had to demonstrate that the changes would contribute to racial bias.

"The second that the court made its 5-4 ruling, all these states across the South were ready with new voter ID laws, with new precinct closures, with voter roll purges," said Daley. "All of it disproportionately affected communities of color."

In the same year that Beshear signed an executive order restoring voting rights to 140,000 Kentuckians with felony records, the state legislature overrode his veto of a new voter ID law, which is set to take effect before November's election. Our big step forward for voting rights disproportionately affecting Black Kentuckians happens alongside a giant step back. We need all eyes on Kentucky for the ACLU's challenge to the voter ID law too. 

The most exciting race in Kentucky's primary turned out to be the Democratic Senate primary race between Charles Booker — a young Black progressive state representative from Louisville's majority-Black West End, whose impassioned local leadership rose to national visibility during the wave of protests over the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville — squaring off against Amy McGrath, a centrist retired fighter pilot who was hand-picked by national Democratic leadership. McGrath has money and Booker's visibility surge came late. We won't know who won until at least June 30, but in the words of Courier Journal politics writer Phillip Bailey, Booker has already "mauled" McGrath in Louisville on the in-person vote. If he wins the primary, it will be one of the biggest Kentucky upsets in recent memory, and he'll face off against McConnell in November, which means those eyes on Kentucky will presumably stay open for the next four months. 

State and local election officials are celebrating their primary turnout win, and the Washington Post is holding Kentucky up as a model for how not to make a pandemic primary a disaster. The Jefferson County Board of Elections hopes to have more people voting close to home in the fall, WFPL reports, though no plan to make that happen safely has been released. But even if we go back to normal, and even if we make no-excuses absentee voting permanent, Kentucky still has work to do to make the vote truly accessible. The people want to vote. They shouldn't have to bang so hard on the door just to be able to get in line. 

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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Amy Mcgrath Andy Beshear Charles Booker Commentary Elections Kentucky Mitch Mcconnell Voter Suppression