Talking heads across the country are asking: What does Democrat Andy Beshear’s apparent gubernatorial win over incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin mean for 2020, when both Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell will be on Kentucky voters’ ballots?
The real answer may be “not much,” considering Bevin’s low likeability rating, and the unique circumstances surrounding this race. But one factor that could change as a result of Tuesday’s election is the makeup of Kentucky’s electorate, which could have reverberations in 2020 and beyond.
Beshear garnered more votes than incumbent Republican Matt Bevin on Tuesday. Bevin requested a recanvass on Wednesday, given the narrow margin favoring Beshear.
But if Beshear is inaugurated on December 10 as planned, he has committed to signing an executive order “in week one” that would automatically restore voting rights to more than 140,000 Kentuckians who have completed sentences for non-violent felony convictions.
About 7 percent of Kentucky’s population, or 312,000 adults, is disenfranchised due to felony convictions, according to a report by the nonpartisan League of Women voters earlier this year. The Sentencing Project estimates that more than one in four African Americans in Kentucky is not able to vote because of past convictions.
Dewey Clayton, who teaches political science at the University of Louisville, said he thinks restoring voting rights to so many who could not previously cast votes could have a significant impact on turnout and policies.
“It could have an impact on our election if these individuals, you know, truly get out here, register to vote, want to be involved in the political process and actually vote,” Clayton said.
Plus, he said the issues that drive the election could be affected by new voters because they might have different interests than the current voter pool.
Currently, Kentucky is one of just two states that permanently bans those with criminal convictions from voting. In late 2015, then-governor Steve Beshear — Andy’s father — signed an executive order that made about 180,000 individuals eligible for restoration of voting rights. Bevin overturned that as one of his first acts as governor.
Kentucky’s next Secretary of State, Republican Michael Adams, said he supports restoration of voting rights to some people, and wants to allow some non-violent offenders to reclaim their voting rights without having to apply to the governor, as is currently required. He is also in favor of amending Kentucky’s Constitution to allow automatic restoration, something he thinks voters could weigh in on as soon as next year.
Adams said the current law disproportionately harms African Americans, and said it would be better for everyone if people who were disenfranchised “without a good reason” were able to vote. He compared what he called “automatic disenfranchisement” to apartheid.
“We can’t have a different version of the system for some of us and then a different one for the others of us. I think it’s important to welcome these people back,” Adams said. “It’s good for democracy, at least a higher turnout and greater cooperation.”
Voter ID Laws
But even as restoring voting rights to some people convicted of felonies could expand Kentucky’s voting population, Adams said he’s in favor of another measure that could restrict the pool: requiring photo identification to vote. Adams called it a “common sense reform” to secure elections. He said he believes election fraud is the greatest risk to Kentucky’s election.
Some groups criticize photo ID policies on the basis they could suppress votes by minorities and the elderly, who are less likely to have compliant identification, but a recent study suggested the effect may not be as significant as previously thought.
Currently, Kentucky voters can verify their identities by being known to an election official or producing identification, which could be a social security or credit card and doesn’t need to have a photo. A change to voter ID law would require legislative action.
Adams said he is not pushing for “draconian” voter ID laws, and said he wants to help people acquire identification. He said Indiana — which requires voter IDs to include a photo and name, and to be issued by the state of federal government — is his model.
“What I’m trying to do is have a moderate sensible position of ‘Hey, let’s require a photo ID but make it easy,’” said Adams.
Adams did not specify how he would like to do that in Kentucky, but said he had heard of programs where groups travel to facilities such as nursing homes and process people’s IDs on site. He did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
He also supports cleaning up Kentucky’s voter rolls by removing those who have died, moved out of Kentucky or are registered somewhere else.
Clayton, from the University of Louisville, said photo ID requirements can suppress turnout for those who have trouble affording or accessing official distributors. But he said addressing those issues can lessen the effect of suppression.
The bigger issue, he said, is that voter fraud is so rare that he does not think it is a sufficient justification for stricter identification laws.
Clayton said it is sad that at the same time Kentucky may give some people the right to vote, it could end up restricting voting access to others by requiring a photo ID.
“It’s going to be an onerous burden on a lot of your citizens,” he said. “And your ultimate goal, in my opinion, should be to increase the actual number of voters.”