Kentucky Politics

A legislative committee has advanced a bill that would trigger an automatic recount if initial election results show a Kentucky political candidate winning by less than half a percentage point.

The measure comes after several close elections across the state in recent years, including last year’s race for Kentucky governor.

Republican House Speaker David Osborne said that the change would allow a reexamination of vote totals without candidates making larger claims of vote irregularities or fraud.

“There’s times when you just have extremely close elections that need to be dealt with quickly and with a reasonable fashion,” Osborne said.

The bill passed out of the House Committee on Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs and can now be considered by the full House.

The measure would apply to candidates for Congress, the state legislature and constitutional offices like governor and attorney general.

Current law doesn’t allow candidates for governor to seek recounts. They can only ask for a recanvass—a retabulation of vote totals—and an election contest, which requires the state legislature to determine the outcome of the election.

Former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin asked for a recanvass of last year’s gubernatorial contest against ultimate winner, now-Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, after initial results showed him losing by about 5,000 votes — a difference of 0.38 percentage points.

Bevin hinted that he would formally contest the election after making unsubstantiated claims of vote fraud, but conceded after the recanvass yielded a difference of only one vote.

Osborne said an automatic recount would take some of the controversy out of the election challenge process.

“They hear election contest, they immediately think that somebody is protesting, that something inappropriate happened, that there was fraud, that there was rigging of some kind. And that’s not necessarily the case,” Osborne said.

House Democratic Leader Joni Jenkins said that she had worked with Osborne on the legislation and approved the changes.

“I think almost every recommendation that we made is included into this bill,” Jenkins said.

A similar version of the bill was proposed during last year’s legislative session after an election contest in Kentucky House District 13, in which initial results showed incumbent Republican Rep. DJ Johnson losing by one vote.

During that election contest, the House randomly selected a panel of lawmakers to formally recount the results, ultimately determining the race to be a tie.

Johnson ended up dropping the contest after the ultimate victor — Democratic Rep. Jim Glenn of Owensboro — threatened to sue.

An election contest of a Kentucky gubernatorial race hasn’t taken place since 1899. The process was contentious and coincided with the assassination of one of the candidates. William Goebel, the ultimate victor, was sworn in as governor on his death bed.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.