State legislatures across the country have been embroiled in high-profile, partisan fights over elections laws since the ballot boxes were put away after the 2020 elections. Kentucky is one of the states where a Republican supermajority voted to change its voting laws, but unlike most GOP-dominant states, lawmakers here sent a sweeping bipartisan bill expanding voting access to the governor's desk.
The secret to their success? During the pandemic, Democratic Governor Andy Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams worked together to try to give voters more options to cast ballots. That led to a record number of voters in November, with more than 2.1 million Kentuckians voting. The turnout benefited Republicans, who expanded their majorities in the state House and Senate and saw former President Trump carry the state by 26 points. And the secretary of state's office found the counties with the highest proportion of early voting were the most Republican counties.
As it turned out, voters and local officials alike welcomedthe changes, and encouraged lawmakers to make some overdue reforms to the state's voting laws.
"Everyone agreed it was a successful election. It wasn't an accident...given how we approached it in a bipartisan way," Adams told CBS News. "I'm proud we are expanding access when other states are not...sensitive both to access and security, you can have both at the same time."
Before the pandemic, Kentucky had some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country and didn't allow for early voting. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state allowed no-excuse mail-in voting, several weeks of early voting and online absentee ballot request forms. Counties could also establish vote centers where anyone in the county could show up to vote.
The measure that passed the state assembly this week would make some of those reforms permanent. Beshear's office said the governor and his team "will review the final version of each bill over the next 10 days, decide what is in the best interest of Kentuckians and act accordingly." Stakeholders are hopeful that Beshear will sign the election bill.
The bill, HB 574, would cement access to early voting forthree days before Election Day, including a Saturday, to cast ballots in-person, although an excuse is once again required for mail-in ballots. The bill also creates an online portal for requesting absentee ballots, allows counties to set up vote centers and gives voters the opportunity to cure signatures on mail ballots.
The measure would require paper ballots for elections and risk-limiting audits, something election experts say are best practices for security. It also bans so-called ballot harvesting by defining a limited number of people who can return a mail ballot for a voter and enhances the ability to remove voters from the rolls if they move.
The bill passed the Senate 33-3 and the House 91-3. Adams said changes that addressed election security were key to passage for Republicans, who realized increased voting access didn't hurt them politically last year.
"You didn't have a Republican legislature necessarily hostile to expanding voting when they did just fine when they expanded voting," Adams said. "Legislatures shouldn't be dialing back access...you don't need to in order to have secure elections, but you also don't need to politically. It's an unforced error."
Another factor working in their favor: Mr. Trump won the state, so there wasn't a focus on re-litigating the outcome. "If Joe Biden won Kentucky it would have been a much tougher lift," Adams said., He noted that unlike Georgia, Kentucky is not a battleground state on the presidential level.
Last week, Georgia's Republican Governor, Brian Kemp, signed a bill passed by the GOP-controlled legislature that expands weekend early voting, requires a driver's license or state ID number or photocopy of an ID to vote absentee by mail and restricts the locations of ballot drop boxes and when they can be accessed. Georgia was one of the more than 40 states that introduced bills that would restrict voting access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Republican state Representative Jennifer Henson Decker, one of the bill's sponsors, told CBS News that lawmakers met with several groups before drafting the bill, including clerks, the state board of elections, the secretary of state and U.S. Senator Rand Paul, to get a wide range of opinions about what would be best to include. Her goal was to draw up a proposal that "protected the integrity of the ballot and let the most people vote as possible."
"If we did nothing, our laws would go back to what they were before the emergency. We saw that there was some really good stuff that happened during that election," Decker said, referring to November 2020. "We wanted to capture the good things from that election."
Republicans can override Beshear's veto with their legislative supermajority, but Decker said the goal wasn't to ram through a hyper partisan bill.
"Everyone who worked on this bill had the attitude that elections should not be partisan matters," Decker said. "The way I looked at it is if you wrote partisan bills for elections, those laws are going to change every time there's a party change in the majority."
Democrats acknowledge that they would have liked to keep more of the measures that arose from the pandemic. Representative Joni Jenkins, the House Democratic floor leader, said she would have preferred more early voting days and doesn't like that voters will once again need an excuse to vote by mail. But with the GOP's iron grip on the statehouse, Democrats took the wins they could get.
"I think we are watching the southern states around us that were controlled by Republican caucuses and we saw lots and lots of voter suppression," Jenkins said. "We felt that at least even if it's a small step, it's a step in the right direction, rather than a step backwards."
Josh Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky who provided input on the bill, said Kentucky lawmakers showed that "voter access and security don't need to be mutually exclusive." He applauded allowing counties to set up vote centers and keeping the online portal for absentee ballot requests - a feature he said would expand access and improve security.
Still, Douglas would have liked to see more early voting days, a later registration deadline, expanded access to mail-in voting and more voting hours on Election Day.
"No one's going to say this is the bill that they would have written," Douglas said. "But there's...a lot of stuff I really like and not a ton that I hate."
And from a voter trust perspective, Douglas said bringing in diverse voices and election experts creates the most legitimate election bills.
"When you have voting rules that are passed on a strict party-line vote, it creates this feeling that you're trying to change the rules to benefit your side," Douglas said. "When you have bills that pass with overwhelming bipartisanship that demonstrates that both sides are getting something they want and that builds trust. And that hopefully creates an environment where you have even further reforms."