Gov. Andy Beshear signed legislation Wednesday expanding early voting in Kentucky a rare display of bipartisan cooperation in the heart of Trump country at a time of national conflict over restrictive election measures.
The Democratic governor called it “a good day for democracy.” The bill's GOP sponsors and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams joined him at the signing ceremony.
“This new law represents an important first step to preserve and protect every individual’s right to make their voice heard by casting their ballots in a secure and convenient manner on the date and time that works best for them,” Beshear said.
Adams said it represents Kentucky’s most significant election law updates in more than a century.
The measure provides for three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting — including a Saturday — before Election Day. It also allows counties to establish voting centers where any registered voter in each county can cast their ballot, regardless of their precinct.
These key provisions relax the state's strict pre-pandemic voting laws. Before the coronavirus hit, Kentucky prohibited early voting by mail or in person unless a person could not vote on Election Day because of advanced age, illness, severe disability or temporarily residing out of the county or state.
But the new law backs off from Kentucky's temporary, pandemic-related accommodations, which allowed widespread mail-in absentee balloting and seemed to minimize the long lines and confusion seen in some states during last year's elections.
The measure also aims to strengthen election security protections.
“While other states are caught up in partisan division, here in Kentucky we’re leading the nation in making it both easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Adams said.
Republican state legislators across the country have pushed for new voting restrictions while seizing on former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud. Many Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping the U.S. Senate will pass legislation standardizing voter protections nationwide.
The tension is most evident in Georgia where a far-reaching new voting law pushed through by Republicans has drawn an intense national scrutiny, prompting belated criticism from such corporate giants as Delta and Coca-Cola.
But in Kentucky, where Trump remains popular, the tone among lawmakers was mild as the bill moved through the GOP-dominated legislature. It was a departure from the bare-knuckled partisan fights Kentucky has been accustomed to on other hot-button issues.
“While some states have stepped in a different direction, I’m really proud of Kentucky,” Beshear said.
The new Kentucky law maintains an online portal for residents to request a mail-in ballot, but restores pre-pandemic restrictions on who can vote by mail. Regarding election security, it will lead to a statewide transition toward universal paper ballots to guarantee a paper audit trail. It enhances the ability of state election officials to remove nonresidents from voter rolls. And it expressly prohibits and penalizes ballot harvesting, the practice of collecting ballots from likely supporters and returning them to election offices.
The new law echoes the tone set last year by Beshear and Adams, who hashed out emergency voting measures during the pandemic that helped Kentucky largely avoid the long lines and other problems encountered elsewhere.
One op-ed writer saw partisan calculations behind the bill, saying Republican lawmakers supported the measure because it helped their dominant political brand in Kentucky. The writer, Berry Craig, a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College, said the state's comparatively low percentage of Black voters also made Republicans comfortable in getting behind the relaxed voting rules.
“While Republicans in Kentucky made it easier to vote because they thought it benefited them, you can bet that if the Democrats, with a big boost from minorities, start significantly rebounding in Kentucky, GOP voter 'reform' will swiftly become impermanent, and Republican lawmakers will lose no time restricting minority voting,” Craig wrote recently.