In 2021 the General Assembly passed legislation with bipartisan support to give Kentuckians three days of early, no-excuse, in-person voting, expanding to four the number of days eligible citizens could cast ballots in the commonwealth.
But a new bill moving through the legislature this year could eliminate that early voting, leaving voters with Election Day as their only option. Sen. John Schickel (R-Union), the sponsor of Senate Bill 61, argues that early voting undermines the sacred nature of Americans coming together on one day to vote.
But fellow Republican Michael Adams, the Kentucky Secretary of State who advocated for the early voting options, says the legislation would be a “catastrophic error,” especially during a presidential election when some 2 million Kentuckians are expected to go to the polls.
“To take away three-quarters of the access voters have and crowd them all into one day could be a huge problem for voters and for the county clerks and poll workers,” he says. “It would also be a national embarrassment for us.”
Adams says early voting was more popular among registered Republicans than Democrats in the 2020 cycle, when he worked with Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, on COVID protocols for voting that year. Adams contends that revoking early voting access now would be “bad optics” for state Republicans and would make Kentucky look backward, which he says will make it harder to attract people and businesses to locate here.
“I’m just very sensitive to our state’s image,” says Adams. “I want us be a top state, not a bottom state.”
Other Proposed Legislation on Voting and Elections
During his first term as secretary of state, Adams had to oversee the 2020 election cycle that included the COVID-19 pandemic and a rash of allegations about the outcome of the presidential race. He also managed the 2023 state elections in which he was also a candidate for a second term. Adams easily won his race and once again drew praise for how smoothly and quickly the votes were counted.
“Kentucky is better off than your average state right now in terms of both sides accepting election results,” he says. “That’s important. We need to have everybody accept the election results whether your candidate wins or loses.”
Now into his second term, Adams is busily preparing for the state and federal elections that will comprise this year’s ballot. He’s also working with lawmakers on a variety of election-related bills that are before the 2024 General Assembly.
In addition to SB 61, which he opposes, there is Senate Bill 10, which proposes an amendment to the state constitution to move Kentucky’s gubernatorial and other races for statewide office to presidential election years. Adams says eliminating off-year elections would give Kentuckians a break from political attacks ads and could save county election officials as much as $20 million. The downsides, he says, include a much longer ballot, and more competition for campaign funds and airtime for advertisements. The secretary says his office will be neutral on SB 10.
Another proposed amendment, House Bill 341, would add language to the state constitution specifically prohibiting non-citizens from voting. Adams says the current language only says citizens are eligible to vote, but it does not include language that specifies that non-citizens can’t vote. He says San Francisco and New York have allowed non-U.S. citizens to vote in local elections, and he says state legislators want to preclude anything like that from happening here. For his part, Adams says he’s against non-citizens voting in any race in Kentucky.
State law says only four proposed constitutional amendments can appear on Kentucky’s ballot in even-numbered years. Yet several more potential amendments could pass the General Assembly in this session. He says if lawmakers want more than four amendments on this year’s ballot, they will have to pass a resolution specifically instructing him to do that.
Beyond the potential amendments, Senate Bill 80 would remove college student IDs as well as credit and debit cards as methods of identification when voting. Adams says he supports eliminating bank cards as an option, but he says it’s a bad idea to repeal the use of student IDs. He says students must have some form of government identification to get a college ID, that there have been no acts of voter fraud using college IDs, and the courts have upheld the use of student IDs as a form of identification. He says dropping student IDs in a presidential election year would be especially problematic.
“I’m in the customer service business,” says Adams. “I want to have a smooth election where people aren’t confused by what is and isn’t an ID.”
The secretary says he is also against a move by some Democrats to remove the straight-party voting option on ballots. He says Democrats enacted that option in the 1950s when they dominated the state legislature and only want to remove it now because they are in the minority. Adams also contends straight-party voting is a time-saving option that can help voters move through the polls quicker.
Finally, Adams says he supports a bill that would provide more money to county clerks for election operations. He also supports a measure that would mandate a recount of one race in each precinct across the state. That audit would test the security and proper functioning of ballot scanners.
“What I like about this is it would be a rational approach, it would be randomized,” Adams says. “It wouldn’t be what we had in 2022, which is people that ran and lost by large margins suing me and suing the county clerk and demanding recount at taxpayer expense.”
A Call for Civic Education
In an era of hyper-partisan politics, Adams has earned accolades for his more measured approach to his job as secretary of state.
“Expanding voting, which Democrats love, tightening integrity protocols, which Republicans love,” he says. “If you do this in a bipartisan way, everyone trusts the elections.”
At the same time, Adams has called out members of his own party on certain issues, such as the move to eliminate early voting, or the spreading of election conspiracy theories. He also criticized a resolution recently passed by the Republican Party of Kentucky that alleged that many protesters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, have been wrongfully detained for criminal misconduct.
Adams describes the insurrection as “outrageous” and “a dark day for America.” He contends the RPK resolution, which passed on a 34-32 vote of the party’s governing board, is an “unforced error.”
“The job of political a party is to expand the base and it’s to win elections,” says Adams. “Every time they pass something like that, it’s going to make it harder for me or others to go out there and compete and pick up the center and win these elections.”
Although Republicans now lead Democrats in voter registrations, it’s actually independent registrations that are growing the fastest in the commonwealth. Adams says 55 percent of independents are first-time voters aged 18 to 29. He says that’s a group Republicans need to reach.
“We can’t just think that getting our own base out is sufficient,” says the Republican. “It’s a good start, you need that, but you also have to find a way to reach the middle.”
Once past the 2024 elections, Adams says he hopes to focus the remainder of his second term on civics education and economic development. HIs office recently released a civic health assessment, which gave the state an overall grade of C in the areas of civics, civic knowledge, and polarization. While he says Kentuckians are less politically polarized than people in other states, he says they lack basic civics knowledge, such as being able to name the three branches of government, or being able to name any local elected official. He says he’s working on legislation that would promote better instruction of civics, the constitution, and U.S. history in schools.
“If you go back and look 200 years ago when we first came up with public education, the rationale was not to create a workforce, which is good. It was to create citizens that were capable of self-governing,” says Adams. “These are soft skills that we can teach our kids that will make them not just better voters, but also better neighbors, better citizens, better workers.”