Kentucky Politics

For Kentuckians hitting the voting booth early, having the option to cast a ballot on a Saturday could come as a relief.

Election day has been on a Tuesday since 1845 and hasn’t changed since. In 2020, Kentucky radically expanded voting access during the coronavirus pandemic, adding three weeks of early voting.

The Republican-led state legislature declined to preserve all of those policies, but passed a reform bill allowing people to vote on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday before an election.

Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, has celebrated the move, saying voting has “never been more accessible and more secure.”

“This is the first time since the 1800s that Kentuckians have had the right in statute to not just have to pick one day, a Tuesday, to go vote. Now, they have multiple options to vote,” Adams said in a statement last year.

Advocates point out that weekday voting day can be inconvenient. People who work during the day, especially those who have hourly jobs, can struggle to get the time they need to stand in line and cast their vote. Bad weather can make the time away from work even longer.

While the jury’s still out on whether early voting improves turnout, it does help reduce long lines on voting day and improve access.

The Brennan Center for Justice interviewed 21 election officials in states that offer early voting, finding that the policy increased poll workers’ confidence, helped identify and curb mistakes and took the pressure off voters who didn’t have the time to commute long distances on a weekday.

University of Louisville political science professor Dewey Clayton said Oregon is an example that Kentucky should follow. Oregon voters can register and cast ballots on the same day.

“A lot of people will wake up on election day and want to vote, but unfortunately, have not registered and therefore will be unable to,” he said. “Forgetfulness is normal.”

Clayton recommended expanding the number of early voting locations. Many counties only have one place to cast ballots early.

Hardin County has only one place to vote early, even though it’s the sixth-most populous and the third-most diverse county in the state. It also has one of the lowest voter turnouts. Clayton said early voting doesn’t help if there are too few places to cast ballots.

“If it’s far away from where people live,” he said. “If people don’t have transportation and the bus takes time, it’s still going to keep people from getting out to vote.”

ACLU Kentucky’s Legal Director Corey Shapiro isn’t too impressed with Kentucky’s additional early voting days.

“This is the bare minimum,” he said. “There are other states that have much better access, and there is simply no reason why we can’t pass legislation or shouldn’t pass legislation that puts us up there. And especially in light of the complete absence of evidence suggesting that there’s any widespread voter fraud when you expand access to voting.”

Still, Shapiro said Kentucky lawmakers made progress with recent bipartisan election reform efforts.

“I think there was a recognition that our voting laws were so antiquated that something historically an attempt to not provide access to the people who have the hardest time getting to the ballot box,” he said.

Josh Douglas, an election law professor at the University of Kentucky, said the primary is typically a low turnout affair and it might take voters a couple of election cycles to get used to new voting processes.

“Ultimately, any way that we can expand access and make it easier for voters is only a good thing. Whether it’s reaching marginalized communities that tend to not vote because of barriers to the ballot box or easing the burden on poll workers, these are pro voter policies, because a healthy democracy requires strong turnout,” he said.

Though turnout during the 2020 primary was still an anemic 31.1%, that’s about 10 percentage points higher than a typical primary election in Kentucky. In the 2019 primary, turnout was 19.4%, in 2018 it was 23.9% and in 2016 it was 20.6%. General Election turnout typically ranges between 50% and 60%.

Divya is WFPL's Capitol Reporter.