Secretary of State Offers Overview of the Primary and General Elections

FRANKFORT, Ky. (July 28, 2020) – Secretary of State Michael Adams testified this morning before the Interim Joint Committee on State Government, offering an assessment of what worked well in Kentucky’s unique 2020 primary election, and what might be sustainable for the general election. Secretary Adams’ full remarks are below. 

Good morning – it’s a pleasure to be back with you. I’d like to offer some perspective about our primary election, as well as our general election.

First, our primary election was a nationally recognized success. With Kentucky at the bottom in so many areas, finally we’re number one in something. We had the highest turnout we’ve seen in many years, and most important, we kept people safe. Following June 23rd, after two weeks of in-person voting, we had no spike in COVID-19 cases, and that’s a testament to the wisdom of the election plan; to the Governor, who got us the necessary PPE; and to our election workers and voters, who patiently followed the CDC guidelines.

But there’s another hero here, unsung: that is you, the legislators. Had it not been for you, coming together across party lines to enact legislation that gave the Governor and me the flexibility to design a new election plan for a state of emergency, we would have had another Wisconsin on our hands.

Since the primary I’ve spoken to several of my Secretary of State colleagues from around the country, Democrats and Republicans, who all want to know: how did we do it? How did Kentucky pull off such a successful election during a pandemic? Certainly, the competence of our State Board of Elections and our county clerks is a big reason, but other states have competent election workers, too. What sets Kentucky apart is that the General Assembly, the State Board of Elections, the county boards of elections, the Governor, and the Secretary of State all worked together in a bipartisan way, to fashion fair and clear rules, well in advance of the election, and to consistently message the new procedures to inform and reassure voters.

During my campaign for this office, and since, my goal has been to maximize Kentuckians’ confidence in our election system. Part of why turnout was so high is that the rules for this election were negotiated between a Democratic Governor and a Republican Secretary of State, and implemented by a State Board of Elections evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Election rules must be not only fair, but seen as fair. That leads me to a point about preparing for November.

There are three lawsuits pending against me in my official capacity that seek to undo or redo significant parts of our election system, and the lawyers behind these lawsuits want to take away your and my policy-making powers and make election policy decisions themselves. The plaintiffs in all these cases either are, or are sponsored by, left-leaning special interest groups. Most of the plaintiffs’ lawyers don’t even live or vote here – they’re based in New York, San Francisco or Washington, D.C. They are telling the judges in these cases that you, I, the Governor, and the State Board of Elections cannot be trusted to run our own elections as we see fit.

That’s a familiar refrain. In the days before our June 23rd primary, similar voices outside our state attacked our Commonwealth, calling us racist vote suppressors and calling on Congress to intervene and take over our elections. The irony is that, while you and I were not engaged in voter suppression, these critics were, as the flames of hate they fanned before their millions of online followers led to my phones and the State Board of Elections’ phones being flooded with angry and sometimes profane out-of-state callers accusing us of Jim Crow tactics. Those calls likely impeded incoming calls from Kentuckians trying to find out where or how to vote.

These lawsuits are troubling, for three reasons. One, we have shown our voters, and the world, that Kentucky knows best how to run its elections. We’ve clearly demonstrated that our Kentucky election officials know better how to run Kentucky elections than do angry voices from the coastal left, whether they’re celebrities, unsuccessful presidential candidates, or high-priced lawyers.

Two, to reiterate, this election worked because our people had confidence in our rules and our system. That confidence came from Kentuckians watching you, the State Board of Elections, the Governor and me working in a bipartisan way, compromising, and agreeing to a plan that took both sides’ concerns into account. If the left-wing out-of-state legal establishment decides our election rules for November, at least half our electorate will not have confidence in that system. A simple online search reveals that the parties suing me, and their lawyers, have made 365 campaign contributions totaling about $168,000; only 1 contribution went to a Republican. No serious person would believe that these lawsuits are politically neutral. We cannot establish election rules on a result-oriented basis. If the rules are not perceived as fair, and half the electorate feel they’re being cheated, at best they will stay home rather than vote; at worst, they will revolt.

Three, if the people tasked by law with developing election processes are deposed of their powers and out-of-state lawyers get to make those policies, there’s really no point in my being here, or your being here. The entire premise of a republic is that the voters elect legislators and executive branch officials to make policy. If those powers are stripped away by an unaccountable judge doing the dirty work of special interests, there’s no reason for people to vote, and there’s no reason for you or me to run for office. We cannot have a functioning democracy unless the people entrusted by the voters with responsibility may freely exercise that responsibility, and be accountable to the voters for how they do so.

So, what worked well in this election, what didn’t, what should we keep and what should we discard? I’m interested in your opinions on these questions, but here are my initial thoughts.

First, absentee voting worked. Not only did we make it convenient, but we made it virtually fraud-proof. Although we are still planning for the November election, I can tell you right now, absentee voting will be a big component of that, even if we don’t expand absentee voting beyond the current classes of voters who qualify for it. Although absentee voting has been in our state’s Constitution since 1945, in a typical election fewer than 2 percent of voters mail in an absentee ballot. Many more than 2 percent of voters qualify for an absentee ballot, however. Even if the classes of absentee-eligible voters is not expanded for November, I think about 20 percent of voters may vote absentee, as they qualify under current law. I think that’s entirely appropriate under the circumstances, and it helps us somewhat thin out the expected crowds who will vote in-person.

We are looking at what load capacity of absentee ballots the post office and our county clerks can handle. It may be possible to expand absentee voting somewhat beyond the current groups of voters who qualify, but personally I’m dubious that we can fully replicate the primary election plan in all respects, as we believe turnout will be 250% higher in November than in June and it’s not obvious that our county clerks, or the post office, can manage a 250% increase in absentee ballots. That is based on feedback from state and local election officials from both major parties. They, and I, are concerned that going from 750,000 absentee ballots to 1.875 million absentee ballots, or more, would overload and crash our system.

Second, early voting worked. Our county clerks are split on whether we should expand absentee voting in November, but they universally support in-person early voting to help smooth out the number of voters over a period of weeks rather than one day. This is a far less expensive and labor-intensive way to conduct an election, and as we’ve shown, we can do it in a way that keeps voters and election workers safe. Assuming we can find the locations and enough poll workers, the challenge here would be to encourage enough voters to utilize early voting and take the pressure off election day voting sites.

Third, election day worked. The challenge is to find the locations and the poll workers. We’re concerned that the schools and churches we typically use for election day might not be available for election day or early voting. We’re also concerned about finding enough poll workers, especially new poll workers who are not of advanced age and more vulnerable to harm from the coronavirus. You can expect to have many more voting locations for the general election than we had in the primary, but how many we can have is ultimately up to the willingness of Kentuckians to be good citizens and lend a hand.

One silver lining of our pandemic primary is that it prompted an upgrade of voting equipment in some of our counties whose prior voting equipment did not allow for a paper trail. For me, the gold standard is paper ballots counted electronically, so we get the speed of a quick count but the security of a paper trail. Whether you’re concerned about vote hacking by foreign powers, or domestic actors tampering with voting machines, or even just the ability to perform a reliable recount, paper ballots counted electronically makes sense. It was a goal of mine over the decade to introduce paper balloting to every Kentucky county, but it now won’t take nearly that long.

Another silver lining is that several suggestions for election reform I offered you in House Bill 596, my Easy to Vote bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Nemes, were implemented in this primary to some success. That bill like so many others died a premature death in the aborted session this spring. I plan to come back next year with election legislation for you to consider, but note that permitting registered Independents to be poll workers, and allowing counties to offer centralized multi-precinct voting locations, proved workable and popular with election officials and voters.

Here’s my final point, and then I’ll take any questions you may have. Our efforts to keep voters safe, and ensure they are not disenfranchised by the coronavirus, are possible only because of emergency powers you granted. I have used, and will continue to use, those powers in a limited way, reluctantly and only where necessary. As we develop procedures for November, I will only modify existing election rules to the extent it takes to keep Kentuckians safe and ensure a successful election conducted under a state of emergency -- not to implement my own, or anyone else’s, policy preferences generally. Thank you.


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