Even though the validity of Kentucky’s vote in the 2020 presidential contest was not challenged, Secretary of State Michael Adams has faced a barrage of questions and accusations about election security in the commonwealth.
“Unfortunately there are people who are spreading false information about our election system,” says Adams. “I get emails and calls about it, legislators get them, and we’re sick and tired of it.”
Adams has received so many questions that he’s created a page on his website called Rumor Control just to address a range of concerns from voting machines being connected to the internet (they’re not) to who counts the ballots (volunteer Republicans and Democrats in every community). He says he finds people are generally divided into three camps: those who trust the election process, those who don’t believe anything about voting security regardless of the facts, and those in the middle who aren’t sure what to think.
“Those are people that I’m trying to show that we’re running a legitimate process,” says Adams.
New Voting Options Await Kentuckians
Adams, a Republican, campaigned for Secretary of State in 2019 with a promise of making it easier to vote and harder to cheat on elections. Since taking office he’s helped shepherd several measures through the legislature to update how voting operates in the commonwealth.
For example, House Bill 564, overwhelmingly approved by the 2022 General Assembly, includes more options for voting, starting with the May primaries. Adams says eligible voters who will be out of town on election day as well as those who are elderly, immunocompromised, or in the last months of pregnancy can request an absentee ballot. They can return their ballot by mail or at drop box provided by their county clerk’s office.
Those individuals can also vote absentee in person at their county clerk’s office for six days ahead of election day.
Early balloting is open to any qualified voter the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday ahead of election day.
And on election day, polls will be open the normal 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Given all the new voting options, Adams is reluctant to predict what turnout might be for the primaries. He says his predecessors would estimate turnout based on the number of absentee ballots requested. Historically, 2 percent of Kentuckians voted absentee and 98 percent voted in person, according to Adams.
“We’ve had about twice as many requests for absentee ballots in this cycle than we had at this point four years ago,” he says. “We’re not sure if that means higher turnout… It’s harder this time to make a prediction.”
Even without a formal prediction, Adams says he expects turnout to be higher than the 19 percent statewide turnout in the 2019 elections for governor and constitutional offices.
“I think you’ll have pretty good turnout, but it will be much higher in some places than it is in other places,” he says.
Election Security Measures
Other legislation passed this year codifies existing state policy that voting machines cannot to be connected to the internet, which could put them at risk of hacking. Adams says Kentucky machines have never been connected to the internet, and he calls allegations to the contrary an “urban legend.”
Lawmakers also heeded a call to return to paper ballots. Some counties never stopped using them, but all counties will be required to implement them by 2024. Adams says voters have more trust in their vote when there is a paper trail, but he adds printed ballots also make it easier to tabulate the vote faster, and to do recounts when necessary.
Adams has also addressed another myth about auditing of vote totals.
“There has been a lot of demand from constituents, primarily from one side of the aisle, wanting what they call a forensic audit,” says Adams. “The problem with that is there is no such thing as a forensic audit. It doesn’t exist.”
Senate Bill 216 does double the number of counties that will be subject to post-election audits. Adams says those audits are done at random by the Kentucky Attorney General’s office. That legislation also expands so-called “risk-limiting audits,” which Adams says is a simple count of the paper ballots to compare that number against what the voting machine tapes report.
Given that there are now multiple days of in-person voting, county clerks are required to use video surveillance of voting machines when polling locations are closed. Adams says this wasn’t necessary when balloting happened on a single day. But now that machines are staying at third-party sites like schools, churches, and community centers for several days, Adams says video surveillance is an important security protocol.
Finally, new state law makes it a crime to threaten the Secretary of State, his or her staff, boards of elections, county election officials, and poll workers. Adams says that became necessary after the 2020 cycle, when election officials across the nation faced harassment, intimidation, and in some cases death threats.
“There’s 15,000-plus people that it takes to run an election in Kentucky and we want them all feeing protected,” says Adams. “We don’t any threat of harm deterring people from volunteering.”
All of these changes leave Kentucky with a voting system that Adams says is more accessible and secure than it’s ever been. He says there could be more changes in the future, but for now he wants to see how the new procedures and protocols work.
“This is really a great accomplishment, I think, for our state,” says Adams, “but it’s new, and when things change, there’s room for error.”
Striving to Be ‘Even-Handed’ in Partisan Times
Even as supporters of former President Donald Trump continue to spread the “Big Lie” that the 2020 contest was stolen, Adams says the election was fairly won by Democrat Joe Biden. He says the United States has seen several eras when such rampant political polarization has peaked.
“You tend to have these populist flare-ups every quarter-century or so” says Adams. “People get really divided and really angry and there’s violence, and then they subside.”
Although Kentucky is now considered a red state, voter registrations are basically even: 45.4 percent for Democrats and 44.9 percent for Republicans, according to Adams. He says the fastest growing group of voters is those who have tired of the traditional two-party system are registering independent. Adams says he has to remind his fellow Republicans that these trends are important.
“We’re now at parity with Democrats, almost, but we’re not the majority. We’re only 45 percent at best,” he says. “If we don’t get the independents to vote for our candidates, we’re going to lose. So let’s make sure that we’re appealing to other people beyond our own little echo chamber.”
Adams says he doesn’t see gerrymandering as an issue in Kentucky, but decries efforts by both parties to try to swing election laws to their favor at the state and federal levels. He says he’s faced criticism from both sides of the aisle for his attempts to be what he sees as even-handed in voting policies. He says a good election system must be fair-minded and non-partisan. A civic health initiative from his office even seeks to help Kentuckians find trustworthy information and reduce political polarization at the state level.
“It’s getting pretty toxic out there,” says Adams. “It’s dangerous.”
As for his own future, Adams says he plans to seek reelection in 2023. But he says he might consider a run for attorney general if current Attorney General Daniel Cameron decides to run for governor.
And Adams says he wouldn’t mind a turn at chief executive someday in the future as well.
“I would love to be governor, but I would have to be convinced that there’s enough Republicans to vote for a candidate that wants to transcend that divide and reach out to the other side,” says Adams.
Until then, Adams has been chosen to participate in the Rodel Fellowship in Public Leadership, a two-year program that brings together a group of state and local officials comprised of both Republicans and Democrats to develop bipartisan approaches to leadership and problem solving.