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Kentucky: The Day After


As some of you may have noticed, Kentucky had an election yesterday. The election attracted an inordinate amount of interest from out of state, in part because the Booker-McGrath Senate primary contest is a proxy for various cleavages, and in part because of a largely unwarranted belief that the state was engaging in mass voting suppression.

What happened?

Assuming Jefferson and Fayette Counties follow through on their policy of not announcing results until next week, we probably won’t know who the winner of the Democratic Senate primary is until then. We can glean some clues from returns from other counties, but Fayette and Jefferson really are the crux of the modern Kentucky Democratic Party.

As most of you now know, Kentucky undertook a serious “lessons learned” project following the final primaries of March and April, hoping to avoid long lines at in-person voting centers that would spread COVID-19. The primary was delayed for about a month, and the total number of polling places was reduced from 3700 to just under 200, with most counties (including Jefferson and Fayette) only having one in-person voting site. The availability of volunteer polling workers was one of the biggest constraints. The state compensated for this with an aggressive mail-in voting public relations campaign, shifting to “no excuse” (as in you don’t need an excuse) mail-in ballots. Most counties in the state opened up early in-person voting a week ahead of election day.

We know that in person voting in Louisville went well, at least up until the last five minutes. Polls in Kentucky close at 6pm (this is long-standing policy, related to now defunct policy of not allowing bars to open on election day until the polls close), and a group of people waiting to enter the Kentucky Expo Center were locked out at 6pm. Much of the problem stemmed from existing Kentucky law stating that anyone standing in a line as polls closed could vote. Because the Expo Center had no identifiable lines, this was hard to interpret. Moreover, the Booker campaign argued that anyone in a car in line (accounts differ of how large this group was) should be allowed to enter and vote. At 6:30 a judge on the spot submitted a hand-written order that everyone standing on the pavement outside the Expo Center could enter and vote. You can watch the Courier Journal’s livestream of the 6pm closing here; it’s seriously gripping television, and Phillip Bailey deserves a network job.

Voting in Lexington went less well, reputedly because of a few decisions by the Fayette County Clerk, including restrictions on early voting and an odd set-up in the Kroger Field polling place. Fayette decided (unlike most other counties) to limit early voting to in-person appointments, under the idea that focusing on the elderly and disabled would ease the strain on election day. Lines at Kroger Field (where the UK Wildcats play football) were long all day, sometime exceeding two hours wait. There were very few reports of lines anywhere else in the state.

The Secretary of State, among others, has estimated that this election will exceed in turnout the 2008 Democratic primary, the previous record-holder with about 900000 votes. Roughly 130000 people voted yesterday, and 450000 mail-in ballots had been received by Monday. Ballots could still be mailed yesterday, and based on prior experience the state seems to be expecting about 1.1 million votes total. Of course, that depends a lot on predictions of voter behavior where we don’t necessarily have strong grounds for our expectations.

Overall, though, most Kentuckians seem fairly pleased with how things went down; we may get record turnout, and long lines were generally avoided even in the big cities.

Who deserves credit?

Governor Andy Beshear deserves much of the credit. He has spearheaded Kentucky’s COVID-19 response, and that effort is fundamental to understanding why the election happened in the way that it did. Secretary of State Michael Adams (a Republican) also deserves some credit, at the very least for not playing an obstructionist role in the shift to no-excuse mail balloting. The state and county public relations teams also deserve enormous credit for extremely aggressive campaigns to inform voters of mail-in and early voting options.

Who deserves discredit?

If you’re not a party to the Booker-McGrath wars, you probably know about the election because of this tweet:

Click through, because this tweet was followed by tweets denouncing Mitch McConnell, denouncing GOP voter suppression, and calling for vastly expanded mail-in voting. Berman’s tweet was so widely shared that it even became the foundation of some stories reporting on the election. It was retweeted by such luminaries as Ava Duvernay, Lebron James, Jennifer Lawrence, Ron Perlman, Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, Pete Buttigieg, and Robert Reich.

The tweet thread is misleading to the point of irresponsibility. Almost everything about the claim was wrong. Mitch McConnell has no direct and very little indirect effect on how the Kentucky state government and the Jefferson County government decided to handle the election. The election structure was developed in a bipartisan manner, with a Democratic governor taking the lead. Vastly expanded mail-in voting was at the absolute core of the effort.

And so developed the unusual theory that a Democratic governor had conspired with a Democratic county government to suppress the votes of Democrats in a Democratic primary election. The attention that the election received outside Kentucky immediately stood at odds with the lived experience of folks in Kentucky, who had been subjected to a barrage of media about early voting and mail-in ballots. But plenty of outsiders were ready to conclude that Mitch McConnell was stealing an election from somebody for some reason, and no one was going to tell them any different.

It’s obviously good that so many folks are interested in supporting voting activism, and that they’re sensitive to efforts to suppress the vote. But the success of activism depends, at least to some extent, on the ability to distinguish between voter suppression and the exact opposite of voter suppression. What Kentucky did was the latter; an effort to maximize turnout while minimizing spread.

Of course, most of the people who tweeted about it didn’t get that far. They didn’t know that the governor of Kentucky was a Democrat, hadn’t followed the (very open and transparent) process in which the decisions on how to hold the election were made, and in many cases weren’t even aware that the election was a primary. At one point I found myself arguing with a gentleman from New Zealand about whether Louisville was the capital of Kentucky.

It’s not just that the architects of an election conducted fairly under horrible conditions should be treated as heroes rather than villains, although that does matter; it’s that claiming the election was fraudulent makes it more difficult to use it as a model for future elections, and to make a clear accounting of what worked well and what didn’t. Ari Berman should have known better; he’s supposed to be an expert in electoral fraud, and yet he couldn’t see what was plain in front of him. Every Democratic official on the list above should have known better; any one of them could have called Andy Beshear on the phone and asked “What’s up?” I’ll give the celebrities a break because politics isn’t their day job (although come on, Jennifer Lawrence; how long can you claim to be Kentucky without actually knowing anything about Kentucky?) although really anyone with a glancing familiarity with American federalism should have greeted the McConnell claim with deep skepticism.

Lessons Learned

Any effort to hold elections with any in-person component at all during the pandemic will tend to increase spread. Any effort to reduce the impact of the election on the pandemic will necessarily reduce voting access, and almost any effort to remedy lack of access will have a differential impact on voting demographics. While folks have tended to assume that voters in Jefferson and Fayette (Louisville and Lexington, the two densest counties in the state) would be disproportionately affected, it’s more likely that votes will be lost in the hilly counties of Appalachian Kentucky, where transportation infrastructure is often extremely bad.

Looking forward, there are some clear lessons for Kentucky, and some lessons that other states can take:

  • Voting periods need to be extended beyond 6pm. Kentucky is an outlier in this, in a bad way.
  • Clarity must be provided regarding the definition of “in line” in order to avoid the situation at the Expo Center.
  • Early voting procedures should be clarified and extended in order to avoid the situation at Kroger Field. Also, the architecture of voting flow needs to be carefully tested and examined in order to prevent long lines.
  • Errors in the delivery, printing, and receipt of ballots need to be corrected. This is mostly just means developing muscle memory, but it’s doable and more states need to get good at it.
  • Polling stations *may* require expansion. Louisville actually did very well, Lexington’s problems are solvable, and the rest of the state apparently did fine. It probably wouldn’t hurt to have an additional in-site location or two in the biggest counties, except insofar as it would encourage in-person voting and thus COVID spread. Much will depend on the situation in November, both with respect to the pandemic and with respect to unemployment/working from home.

And here are some lessons learned for internet activists:

  • Learn some damn thing about what you’re trying to talk about. If all you know about Kentucky is Mitch McConnell and Harlan Sanders, take at least a two minute detour into Dr. Google and Professor Wikipedia. Many of the basic misconceptions could have been cleared up very easily.
  • Pay attention to what locals are saying. People who live in Kentucky may actually know more about Louisville traffic patterns that people living in Ottawa.
  • Every local political situation is idiosyncratic. The Kentucky GOP is complicated; Mitch’s hand-picked candidates for Senator and Governor both lost their primaries. He’s not omnipotent even in his own party. The Kentucky Democratic Party is complicated, with a lot of disagreement among the big time players as to Senate strategy. If you can’t even get a satisfactory answer to cui bono, maybe put that conspiracy theory in the holster.

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