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National Figures Warn Of Kentucky Voter Suppression, Locals Not So Much


  Lebron James, Hillary Clinton, Stacey Abrams and several other national figures say they’re worried that Kentucky will have too few polling places during the state’s primary elections on Tuesday, leading to voter suppression. But local election officials and experts say their fears are overblown.

Most Kentucky counties will only have one polling location after officials expanded mail-in voting to all eligible voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

In turn, local election officials reduced the number of in-person polling sites to reduce the number of poll workers who could be exposed to the virus and encouraged people to vote by mail.

Josh Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, who has advocated for adding more polling sites in the state’s most populous counties, says it’s unlikely an unmanageable crush of voters show up to vote in person.

“If we do see those kinds of lines it’s because we’ve had turnout that is so massive that no one could have possible predicted…80% turnout in a primary, which has never happened ever,” Douglas said.

The concerns about Kentucky from national figures arose after the Washington Post published an article warning that the state was bracing for “possible voting problems” amid high voter turnout.

Lebron James tweeted,“This is SYSTEMIC RACISM and OPPRESSION. So angry man”. In response to the article, Hillary Clinton tweeted “This is voter suppression” and Louisville native Jennifer Lawrence tweeted, “This is voter suppression. Don’t let that stop you.”

But after expanding mail-in voting to all eligible voters—something that hasn’t happened in Kentucky before—many, if not most voters will cast ballots by mail during the primary elections.

According to the Kentucky Secretary of State’s office, nearly 890,000 Kentuckians requested a mail-in absentee ballot—that’s about 25 percent of the almost 3.5 million registered voters in the state.

That’s already higher than the 20.6% voter turnout Kentucky had in the last primary election when both a U.S. Senate race and the presidency were on the ballot.

On top of that that, by the end of the weekend a total of 88,507 voters had cast ballots early, in-person. Many counties, including Jefferson, the state’s largest, also had early voting on Monday.

Jared Dearing, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said that there may be “some lines” on Tuesday, but that every election does.

“The hope here is that we’ve relieved as much of the stress and pressure off of the election day system by having people avail themselves of the absentee ballot and in person voting,” Dearing said.

Kentuckians will weigh in on races for U.S. Senate, Congress and the state legislature during the primary elections.

Concerns about long lines also come after Georgia reduced its number of polling locations and many people said they didn’t receive mail-in ballots.

It is still unknown how many people who requested absentee ballots in Kentucky end up mailing them in. Officials have acknowledged reports from individuals saying they never got a ballot or got an incorrect ballot.

The State Board of Elections passed a regulation on Monday allowing voters who requested, but never received, mail-in ballots to cast one in person.

Dearing said the state is trying to balance voter access and security.

“We’re not hearing widespread reports of voters not having received their ballots yet, but if that is the case, we want to make sure that we’re ensuring those voters have access,” Dearing said.

Under the new regulation, voters will be able to appear at their county polling location to vote in person. Election officials will be able to cancel the absentee ballot request in the voter registration system.

Mail-in ballots must be postmarked on June 23.

Because county clerks will need time to process and count ballots, officials don’t expect results of the election to come for several days. The deadline for county clerks to submit results is June 30.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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