State lawmakers and voting rights activists are bracing for potential chaos during Kentucky’s primary election on Tuesday after concerns over coronavirus led state elections officials to sharply limit the number of in-person polling places.
Those limits – from just under 3,700 polling locations in a typical election, according to the Kentucky secretary of state, to 170 locations on Tuesday – have led to outcry across the country, particularly from Democrats who say it could result in a nightmare scenario in big cities with hours-long lines, potentially disenfranchising Black voters. The commonwealth’s two most populous counties, Jefferson and Fayette, the homes of Louisville and Lexington, will have just one in-person polling location each open on Tuesday.
The outcry has already made Kentucky the newest battleground in a nationwide fight over voting access.
“This is SYSTEMIC RACISM and OPPRESSION,” NBA star LeBron James tweeted Saturday.
Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate and a leading voice on voting access in the Democratic Party, on Twitter said that the coronavirus pandemic was “no excuse” for such limited in-person polling places.
“Voter suppression is no longer billy clubs & Jim Crow. It’s closed polling sites + 6 hr waits w/o pay. COVID is no excuse,” she said. “Who needs to vote in person? The disabled. The homeless or displaced. Voters w/language barriers. Folks who didn’t get their ballots in time. Americans.”
Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams pushed back against concerns about Tuesday’s election by noting the number of ballots cast absentee and during early voting and pointing out that the current rules were part of an agreement between the Republican election official and Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.
The election features a high-profile Democratic Senate matchup between establishment favorite Amy McGrath and Charles Booker, a Black state representative whose candidacy has been propelled by the activism sweeping the country. The two are vying for the chance to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November, and interest in the Democratic Senate primary has soared following the shooting of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black EMT who was killed when police broke down the door to her apartment in an attempted drug sting and shot her eight times.
The interest in the race has led to increased turnout expectations, intensifying fears of long lines at limited polling sites.
Kentucky in March postponed its May primary to June, and all voters in the state were allowed to request absentee ballots. The Kentucky secretary of state’s office said Monday that it had issued over 867,311 mail-in ballots in the primary election, while just over half – 442,919 – have been returned.
Election Day concerns, especially over how the lack of in-person polling sites could affect Black voters, were so great that a bipartisan group went to court last week to demand more polling locations. A judge denied the claim, citing concerns that last-minute action by the court would adversely impact the election.
“We hope we are wrong and that there are no problems in voting. But if there are major concerns with the election, we will fight as hard as we can to ensure that similar problems don’t recur during the general election in November,” Louisville Councilwoman Keisha Dorsey, a Democrat, and Jason Nemes, a Republican state representative, wrote in a joint statement after the decision.
These concerns are not without precedent. The rise of the coronavirus and cuts to in-person voting sites led to long lines in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia earlier this year, especially in the states’ biggest cities.
And the trend could continue in Louisville and Lexington, the commonwealth’s two largest metropolitan areas.
Jefferson County, home to Louisville and the largest Black community in the state, will have all in-person voters on Tuesday gather at the city’s large convention center. And in Fayette County, home to Lexington, the commonwealth’s second largest city, all in-person voting on Tuesday will take place on the football field at the University of Kentucky.
“In parts of the country with major cities this primary season, the decision to have a handful of in person voting sites has proven increasingly problematic,” said Kristen Clarke, the head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “So, it is hard not to see one in-person voting location not prove to be equally challenging.”
The concerns go beyond impacts foisted upon election officials due to the coronavirus, though.
The nation’s reckoning with centuries of oppression of Black Americans, along with the killing of Taylor, has led to persistent protests throughout Kentucky. Clarke and others believe that activism will lead to higher than expected turnout, especially in Louisville, the site of the shooting.
“We have seen nonstop demonstrations and protest surrounding the tragic killing to Breonna Taylor,” Clarke said. “I think there are many people who will take that anger to the polls.”
The increased activism has coincided with amplified interest in the Democratic Senate primary.
Both Booker and McGrath have seized on the voting issues, but the insurgent challenger has been far more public as he blankets the state and constantly makes himself available to media.
“It’s not right. And we’ve seen in other parts of the country, it’s not excusable at all,” Booker told CNN. “We are better than this. This is not what democracy is all about. It should be easy to have your voice heard.”
McGrath’s campaign on Friday posted an instructional video on social media featuring the candidate showing how to fill out a by-mail ballot.
Her campaign also sought to join Nemes’ federal lawsuit, saying that the limited number of polling places threatened to “disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians.” She also challenged Kentucky’s absentee voting rules, leading a judge to rule that her challenge was too broad and she could not join the lawsuit.
Pointing on Friday to reports about the limited number of polling places in large counties, McGrath tweeted: “This is exactly why my team joined a lawsuit to expand polling locations and have been working to make sure every single eligible Kentuckian can vote and no one is disenfranchised because of where they live.”
Her campaign on Monday did not respond to questions about how she is preparing for the possibility of a chaotic scene on primary day.
Booker, who is hoping that late momentum in the race can compete with the financial advantage of McGrath’s campaign, said his supporters are motivated to vote – no matter how long it may take on Tuesday.
“It’s been hard to vote in Kentucky, for a lot of us, for a long time. What we’re seeing now is really a continuation of that,” Booker said in an interview as he campaigned across eastern Kentucky. “To have a county as big as Jefferson County, with hundreds of thousands of voters and say you can only vote in one location, it’s just naturally going to disenfranchise people.”
Booker, who has drawn a series of high-profile national and local endorsements in the closing stretch of the race, said his campaign was preparing to support voters as they did their civic duty on Tuesday, including driving people to the polls and preparing legal teams for possible voting issues.
“We’re vigilant. We’re ready,” said Booker. “And we’re going to make sure everyone’s vote is heard.”
This story has been updated with comment from Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams.