This story has been updated.
The secretary of state is Kentucky’s top election official, maintains business filings and trademarks and oversees the Land Office, which keeps property records dating back to before Kentucky became a state in 1792.
Current Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, is term-limited and cannot seek reelection. Grimes’ office has been in turmoil over the past year, after a staffer on the State Board of Elections accused her of improperly accessing voter registration data, and the legislature stripped some of her powers. At one point she had considered running for governor.
Election management is top of mind for many Kentuckians at the moment, as the State Board of Elections recently tried to place more than 165,000 voters on an “inactive” list amid an attempt to clean the state’s voter rolls. That move would not have prevented those voters from casting ballots this year. However, the Kentucky Democratic Party challenged the action in court, and a judge recently ruled against the list.
Like all of Kentucky’s constitutional officers, secretaries of state serve four-year terms. Candidates must be at least 30 years old and be a resident of the state for at least two years before the election.
This year’s candidates are Michael Adams, a Republican, and Heather French Henry, a Democrat.
Adams grew up in Paducah and has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Louisville, and a law degree from Harvard University. He has an election law practice in Louisville and serves as counsel for the Great America Committee, a political action committee created by Vice President Mike Pence.
Gov. Matt Bevin appointed Adams to the State Board of Elections, a post he resigned earlier this year to run for secretary of state. He has ties to former Missouri governor Eric Greitens, who resigned last year under risk of impeachment.
Henry is the former commissioner and deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs. She served in that department first under Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, then under Republican Gov. Bevin.
Henry was also Miss America in 2000, a position she used to advocate for homeless veterans’ needs. She is the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, and grew up in Maysville and Augusta, Kentucky.
In 2000, she and her husband–former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry–reimbursed the state after revelations that state employees had used personal time to work the couple’s wedding. In 2009, he entered a plea deal with prosecutors agreeing to decreased charges for for misusing campaign funds related to his 2007 race for governor.
Both candidates participated in interviews with WFPL. Here are some of their responses, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.
How would you rate election security in Kentucky?
“We’ve been rated, by independent organizations, not very highly. The primary threat to our election database in Kentucky is not a foreign threat. It’s a domestic threat. I’ll give you a couple examples. One of them is when I served on the State Board of Elections, we found that a lot of our clerks don’t use protected Wi-Fi. That’s a big vulnerability. Pranksters can play around, candidates can play around, get into the voter file potentially.”
Heather French Henry:
“I believe that we’ve done a decent job in trying to stay on top and navigating cyber security. We really lean on the National Association of Secretaries of State to advocate for us. We got the Homeland Security access for secretary and deputy secretary of state, which is vitally important because that provides us real-time cyber security threat [information]. In this day and age, there’s no hundred percent unhackable system out there, so being both proactive and reactive in real time is extremely important. I do think we’re navigating waters that we’ve never navigated before with those threats, certainly. I would like to see a sole designated person, a chief information election officer, that does nothing but oversee and implement new infrastructure to make sure our elections are secure.”
What would you like the U.S. Congress to do to help our elections?
“I think that we should follow the Constitution, which clearly states that the states will govern the time, place and manner of our elections. The states have to run this, the states know their states better than Washington. What Washington can do is give us grant money to help us pay for what we need. We need to improve our election infrastructure, we need to upgrade our machines, which are woefully deficient and outdated. We need money for cyber security. But Washington needs to stay out of actually running our elections. They can give us intelligence data, and they can give us money, but we’ve got to do this ourselves.”
Heather French Henry:
“I certainly would like to see federal government supply some more funding. We do know that the secretary of state in the past has always been a fiscal foot soldier for our county clerks in our election process. Even though we now have a separated system where the secretary of state is no longer the chair of the State Board of Elections, I still see myself in the role of secretary of state as still being that fiscal foot soldier, whether it is working through the National Association of Secretary of States, who is the one entity that kind of pounds the pavement with Congress and Senate to be able to get some additional financial support from federal government.”
Do you think Sec. Grimes did anything wrong?
“I’ll be limited in what I say. But I’ll tell you I’ve provided evidence to law enforcement. I’m not able to talk about the details of what I saw. But I can confirm that I’m a cooperating witness on this stuff. It’s going to be up to the grand jury. It’s going to be up to the special prosecutor to decide what she did and didn’t do. I’m not going to prejudge the specifics of that. My point is this office should not be scandalized.”
Heather French Henry:
“I believe that every secretary tries to do their own due diligence and you know, I believe that she was acting as she saw best in the interest of the voters, and trying to fight for the rights of securing information and the access to voting, and I do believe this is a very politically-driven question and a politically-driven atmosphere. So one side’s going to say she did a great job, the other side’s gonna say she didn’t do a great job. But I’m here to tell you that as secretary of state, my job is to be fair and impartial, and to look at the protocols and procedures, as I’ve done in the past and proved in the past. And that has nothing to do with how Secretary Grimes has done her work proceeding me.”
Do you agree with recent actions by the State Board of Elections to clean up voter registration rolls?
“The short answer is yes. This is not a Republican hack job to play around with the elections. There’s bipartisan unanimity that we have got to clean up our rolls. We’re under a federal court order to do so. If we don’t, we could be held in contempt of court.”
Heather French Henry:
“That process is very interesting, and it should not be that complicated. I do understand the State Board of Elections was provided a federal consent decree in order to maintain those rolls. Voter roll maintenance is nothing new, certainly. But being able to provide a transparent process for which it’s done is something we need to move for in the future.”
What are your ideas for increasing voter turnout?
“When I filed for this office, the secretary of state sent me a little form and said, ‘Fill this information out, we’ll put on our website, people can go look at your picture, and a link to your website.’ That’s a really good start. And I actually commend Sec. Grimes for doing that. I want to expand this, I want to make this a statewide opportunity for any candidate for any office in our state. There’s two kinds of bad turnout, low turnout. One is the type that we, of course, think of: voters not showing up. But here’s the other type. A large number of people, they’ll click the first box they see, they’ll click the second box they see and then they’ll stop voting. They don’t even turn their ballot over and vote for school board, County Commission, judge. They miss all of that, because they just don’t know enough about the candidates. So if you look at the real turnout, it’s actually even lower than we think it is. Because people are under-voting on those races.”
Heather French Henry:
“When I think about voter engagement, I want to make sure that we’re partnering with maybe some creative resources, maybe our women’s clubs in all of these counties, not just our schools. Maybe our civic organizations, maybe our Rotary Clubs, maybe our Lions Clubs, maybe our Kiwanis. It really takes everyone being able to talk about elections, to get people to engage in those elections. And so that’s something that I’m very excited to take part in.”
What is your position on restoring voting rights to convicted felons, and under what conditions would you find it acceptable?
“Well, I support it. Right now, the process is, you have to apply to the governor to get a restoration. I support a restoration without having to go through that process, in limited instances. Not in the case of violent felons; I think these people should have to show rehabilitation before they’re automatically welcome back into the process. People convicted of election law felonies, there are dozens of felonies people can commit in Kentucky that make them felons, whether it’s tampering with the machine or campaign finance violations, like you saw with the secretary of state’s father, things like that. I think those things should be exceptions. But I think you’ve got a whole array of offenses that people make that really have no relationship to whether they should be able to vote or not. We have to restore those rights.”
Heather French Henry:
“I certainly think that the restoration of voting rights is something we need to move forward with in Kentucky. We’re one of the few, if not the only state that hasn’t really addressed this issue. When I talk about the restoration of voting rights, I also talk about the unintended consequences of us not doing anything. And so when you think about the 312,000 Kentuckians that this involves, I also think about the children that live in those households. If we’re not addressing this issue for those persons who have been stripped of that right, and they’re never getting a chance to vote, what type of dialogue are they having in their home with their families? If those children aren’t growing up knowing how important that process is, are they going to grow up then engaged or disengaged from voting? And that’s something we just can’t tolerate. We cannot create future generations of uneducated voters.”
Why does it matter if your secretary of state is a Republican or a Democrat?
**Editor’s note: Michael Adams’ statement that the Secretary of State is in the line of succession to be governor in Kentucky is incorrect. Third in line of succession is president of the Senate.
“This is an important office, it’s actually third in line of succession to the governor. For the first hundred years, this was merely an appointment office. But then the constitution was changed. And this became an elected position. This office became responsible for the election. So you got to have checks and balances. You don’t want any particular governor controlling the election process. You want checks and balances to ensure everyone is fair and neutral and objective. Most of the administrative functions of this office are simply administrative: business filings, state record filings and so forth. To be frank, it doesn’t matter if Mrs. Henry or I wins, in terms of the governance of that part of the office. But there are actually policy-making authorities granted to this office, by law, by the legislature, and that’s where it does matter if you have a Republican or Democrat.”
Heather French Henry:
“I actually don’t think it should be affiliated with a political party, if you really want to know my honest truth. In fact, when I first filed for office, I said, I understand I’m filing as a Democrat, but the Office of Secretary of State is supposed to be a ministerial office, meaning it’s not discretionary, meaning that it is not up to you to decide who you do and don’t help. So when we hear people talk about, well, you’re from the right side or you’re from the wrong side, secretary of state’s not there to take sides. Secretary of state is there to administer a process set forth by the legislature, and to be able to have the talent and aptitude to listen to all sides, and make good informed decisions on the best of all voters of Kentucky and all citizens of Kentucky.”