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Bill seeking to end early voting in Kentucky exposes divisions within Republican ranks

Ryland Barton

Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams has forcefully pushed back against an effort to eliminate three days of early voting in the Bluegrass State, exposing fissures within Republican ranks in a state that has avoided pitched fights over election rules that erupted elsewhere.

In comments to a Kentucky House panel, Adams bluntly urged lawmakers to “not go backwards” as he defended the law allowing three days of no-excuse, in-person early voting. It allows Kentuckians to go to the polls on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday before an election.

“It would be catastrophic going into a presidential election, with very high turnout anticipated, to take away three of our four voting days,” Adams, a Republican, told the GOP-led committee on Thursday.

“It will be challenging enough to shoehorn an expected 2 million voters into four days," he added. "I don’t know how we would fit this many voters into just one day, without major problems.”

The result would be long lines, frayed nerves and voter confusion after recent election cycles in which polling places were open for three days leading up to the election, his office said Friday.

His comments reflected tension over voting rules that escalated after former President Donald Trump falsely blamed his 2020 loss on voter fraud. Republicans in some states have sought to tighten election rules while Democrats have tried to make it easier to cast a ballot. In Kentucky, where Republicans have legislative supermajorities, the outcome will depend on where GOP lawmakers line up on the issue.

Adams' remarks were aimed at a Senate bill that would end the early voting days. Republican Sen. John Schickel, its lead sponsor, has made speeches promoting the bill, which has been sent to a committee.

“Election Day is special; I would even say sacred," Schickel said in a speech. “That is why it was established to be special. So those who say that we should worship at the altar of convenience and casualness, I say voting is a privilege and it’s an awesome responsibility that should never be taken as an afterthought.”

Just three weeks into a legislative session that lasts until mid-April, it's too early to gauge the bill's prospects, said Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer.

“I’m keeping an open mind because I never was a big fan of early voting to begin with,” he said Friday.

The measure has drawn at least a half-dozen Republican cosponsors in the 38-member chamber.

In 2021, the legislation that expanded early voting drew bipartisan support in the Trump stronghold, drawing national attention at a time of conflict in other states over restrictive election measures.

At the bill signing, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear called it “a good day for democracy,” and said it created greater convenience for people to cast ballots when it "works best for them.” Adams hailed it as Kentucky’s most significant election law update in more than a century.

It relaxed the state’s strict pre-pandemic voting laws but backed off from accommodations made during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when widespread mail-in absentee balloting was allowed.

Last year, nearly 20% of Kentuckians who voted in the November election did so during the three days of early in-person voting, the secretary of state's office said. Both Beshear and Adams, who worked together to reshape election laws, were reelected. Another key part of the law allows counties to establish voting centers where any voter in each county can cast their ballot, regardless of their precinct.

“There’s nothing bad and everything good with the way Kentucky adopted and implemented early voting,” University of Kentucky law professor Joshua A. Douglas said in an email Friday. “Kentucky was previously one of the most restrictive states for the time available for people to vote. Adding three days of early voting made the state a little bit better.”

Schickel's bill would let Kentuckians cast absentee ballots in their county clerk’s office or other designated place at least 13 working days before an election. Adams' office said that would draw just a tiny fraction of the electorate, making it no substitution for the current three days of no-excuse, in-person early voting.

During his committee appearance Thursday, Adams said Kentucky lawmakers — unlike those in some other states — “acted rationally and have been driven by facts rather than outlandish conspiracy theories.”

“Kentucky runs clean elections,” Adams said. “On the rare occasion that there is cheating, it is caught and prosecuted.”

Adams — whose mantra while in office has been to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat — has repeatedly taken on election skeptics, referring to them as “cranks and kooks.” He easily won his 2023 GOP primary, which included a challenger who promoted debunked election claims. Adams then won a resounding victory over his Democratic opponent in November. Now term-limited, Adams' name comes up when handicapping the potential field of Republican candidates for governor in 2027.