Bluegrass Beacon: Will state’s new election laws improve primary voter turnout?

Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions

Thursday, May 12, 2022 — Tuesday’s primary election will be the first test of new state election laws.

Will they help increase turnout?

Let’s hope so.

Turnout in the 2020 presidential primary election – moved from May to several weeks in June after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic – was 1.1 million, or 29%, up from 20% in the 2016 primary. More than 848,000 used absentee ballots.

Over 2 million voted in the 2020 General Election after Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams reached agreement with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to allow three weeks of voting.

But that was a presidential election, when turnout’s usually stronger – with or without a pandemic or expanded schedule.

The coronavirus makes conducting elections – a monumental undertaking for counties, even in good times – even more challenging for counties.

Jefferson County voters in the 2020 primary only had one location – the 1.3 million square feet of space at the Kentucky Exposition Center – something for which Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw was roundly criticized.

“We’ve got to deal with the cards that have been dealt to us,” Holsclaw responded at the time.

While House Bill 574, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Decker, R-Shelbyville, allowing three days of early in-person voting – including the Saturday before Election Day – beginning this year passed with overwhelming bipartisan support during the General Assembly in 2021, it remains to be seen how voters in an off-year nonpresidential election will respond.

Only 24% of eligible voters cast ballots in the last pre-Covid nonpresidential primary in 2018.

It may help that Jefferson County – Kentucky’s largest – has six polling locations for this year’s three early days of voting.

Jefferson Countians who want to vote in person on Election Day can – like pre-Covid – go to their precincts’ normal polling sites.

Other counties offer different options.

Warren County made five locations available for both early and Election Day voting and is adding three additional locations for Tuesday.

Warren County Clerk Lynette Yates told WKYU-FM that changes brought on by the pandemic – including no-excuse early voting – helped turnout.

While Yates wouldn’t commit to the same approach “forever,” she said “everything we heard in 2020 was so positive and that’s why we’re continuing with that plan.”

Holsclaw told me in an interview on Louisville’s WBNA TV 21 and 970 AM WGTK that low primary turnouts for all political parties mean winners need fewer votes to prevail yet – if they win in the fall – will make decisions directly impacting many citizens.

“It affects your life every day,” she said. “Whether you want to believe that – that’s very true.”

Or, as Thomas Jefferson is credited for observing: “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority of people who participate.

Turnout can be influenced by whether voters believe in the election’s integrity.

Holsclaw said she’s addressing this by insisting upon paper ballots kept by her office for 22 months and around-the-clock security where votes are housed after being cast “to make sure that no one can tamper with or get to those ballots and no one can get to the machines.”

Machines, she’s quick to add, which have “no modems inside,” making it impossible for them to be connected to the internet.

“We’ve worked very hard to make sure everything goes right and that people can trust that their vote does count,” she added.

Will it be enough to reassure skeptical voters?

Hopefully, since getting good policies implemented – my focus – requires capable policymakers and competent leaders.

And we’re more likely to get better leaders when more voters of all political persuasions engage.

“My hope is that more people want to get involved now.” Holsclaw said. “I think they’ve seen a lot of things go on, particularly in Jefferson County, and it is my hope that they want to go to the polls and state their feelings.”

Mine, too – whatever those “feelings” might be.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.


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