LOUISVILLE, Kentucky—After disastrous primary showcases in Wisconsin and Georgia, voting-rights advocates turned their eyes to Kentucky amid national concern that the state’s Tuesday primary could be the latest to offer a troubling portrait of voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the days before the election, hallmarks of what made other elections in a time of COVID hellish were unfolding: In Jefferson County, only one polling site, albeit a large one, was open Tuesday. That made the Kentucky Exposition Center the lone in-person polling location for the area that includes this city, the state’s largest.
A similar scene played out in other large counties, including Fayette County, where, according to the secretary of state’s office, Tuesday’s only polling location was Kroger Field/Commonwealth Stadium at the University of Kentucky.
There was celebrity outcry online and accusations of voter suppression. But while the lack of different locations in some of the state’s largest areas troubled some onlookers, the Kentucky contest did not appear to become the kind of Election Day quagmire that was feared just days before. One expert credited election officials, expanded vote-by-mail options as well as early voting, and an online portal to request an absentee ballot for helping to keep Tuesday’s voting from creating more widespread difficulties in the state.
But it wasn’t without problems. Long lines at times in Fayette County were clear, and doors closing at 6 p.m. in Jefferson County led to calls to allow more voters in amid access concerns.
The primary marked the easiest it has been to vote in the state “probably ever,” said Josh Douglas, an election-law professor at the University of Kentucky.
“It’s not a perfect or ideal plan, but it’s more expansive than Kentucky’s ever had for its voting laws,” Douglas said.
Almost an hour after polls were open in Louisville, cars flooded the rainy and windy parking lot of the Exposition Center. There was no waiting and smooth transitions in nearly all of the ballot lines at the South Wing of the hall.
For Deryk Hayes, it was his first time voting in Kentucky after moving from Illinois. He had heard concerns about voter suppression, but said he swiftly got in and out of the polls, deeming it “a good situation.”
“A number of Kentuckians and Louisvillians were taking advantage of the (mail-in ballot), but I wanted to come out for my first time voting in Kentucky,” Hayes said.
Tuesday’s contest benefited from a bipartisan agreement from Kentucky’s Republican Secretary of State and Democratic governor that allowed Kentucky voters to vote absentee if they wished due to health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.
In an April press release, Secretary of State Michael Adams detailed “expanding absentee voting” options, but also noted that the agreement would let local county clerks “significantly reduce the number of sites for in-person voting on Election Day,” amid coronavirus concerns.
The lack of polling locations on the actual election date had attracted national scorn from both former presidential candidates and celebrities in the lead-up to the primary after The Washington Post reported that roughly 200 polling sites would be open for Election Day, compared to the past standard of 3,700 locations.
“What’s happening in Kentucky ahead of tomorrow’s election is unacceptable and will lead to voters spending hours in line to cast their ballot during a pandemic,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) tweeted Monday night.
“Said it last week about GA. This is SYSTEMIC RACISM and OPPRESSION. So angry man,” NBA superstar LeBron James tweeted Saturday.
Voting in Kentucky also appeared to catch the attention of music star Ariana Grande, who tweeted Tuesday afternoon “sent some food and coffee trucks for everyone waiting in line ! please pull up, enjoy and use your voice today we need u @kyexpocenter.”
Both Adams and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear defended their approach in the days leading up to the primary. The state’s Democratic governor touted in a statement Monday that Kentucky “for the first time allowed mail-in voting and ‘no-excuse’ early voting” and described the state as being on pace for “a record number of votes.”
“Everybody would like to have more than one polling location in an area. I get that, and I think it’s a valid criticism,” Beshear told reporters Monday, before touting the expanded voting options that allowed voting well before Election Day.
Adams posted a video on Twitter on Tuesday morning showing hundreds of polling stations at the Kentucky Exposition Center as he touted “smooth going in Jefferson County this morning.”
“Wait, where are the 600,000 people supposedly voting today? #suppressionfail,” Adams said.
Among those voting at the mega location was William Ranstell, an elderly man from South Louisville. Ranstell was worried before reaching the polls that he would be in the midst of multiple people as he tried to vote. He grew anxious after seeing the traffic from his seat on the Transit Authority of River City bus, but ultimately, he said casting his vote went “smoothly.”
For other voters, the election was not so easy. Local dentist Anah Switzer said she requested and received a ballot, but her name was incorrectly listed. After an email response from Kentucky.gov promised the error wouldn’t affect her ballot, she has yet to receive a corrected mail-in. Switzer’s status on the portal says she never received a ballot, and so she was forced to vote in-person at the Exposition Center.
“I’m really frustrated that I will have to go vote in person after having worked with aerosols all day, and I’m worried that I may accidentally expose another voter to COVID,” Switzer said.
The campaign for Democratic Senate candidate Charles Booker said minutes before polls were set to close in Jefferson County that they were filing an injunction to keep things open until 9 p.m citing “traffic of up to 1 hour trying to enter the fairgrounds,” according to a tweet from Booker’s campaign manager Colin Lauderdale.
A video shared widely on Twitter showed people banging on the doors of the polling site to be let in. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Booker's move caused the site to be extended to 6:30 p.m.
Amy McGrath, Booker’s rival in the Democratic Senate primary, tweeted after the polls closed that “everyone in line should be able to vote. We’re also filing an injunction to keep the polls open in Jefferson County. Stay in line.”
States have emphasized voting by mail in an effort to try and allow people to vote safely during the pandemic. The smoother Election Day in Kentucky stands in contrast to the dark portrait of mail-in voting painted by President Donald Trump, who has continued to promote baseless conspiracy theories about mail-in voter fraud being widespread.
But that didn’t stop Kentucky’s GOP election’s chief from touting that “voting absentee is easy, secure, and wildly popular” last month as mail-in voting became a focal point of the June primary.
On a call with reporters Tuesday, Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, noted there had been reports of long lines in Fayette County and wait times of around an hour.
While Clarke complimented Jefferson County officials for finding such a large space for voting during the pandemic, she said she remained troubled by the accessibility challenges that the lone site posed in a county that has a high poverty rate and a poor public transportation system.
“I believe that Jefferson County could have done a better job providing voters more flexibility and options today,” Clarke said.
Election results were also not expected Tuesday given the heavy emphasis on mail-in voting, meaning Democrats waiting to see who will ultimately get to face Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the general election will have to wait a little longer.
For months McGrath, a former fighter pilot, was the frontrunner to face McConnell. The establishment of the party had coalesced around her and her fundraising far outpaced her nearest competitor, Booker, a Democratic state representative. But the March 13 police killing of EMT worker Breonna Taylor in her apartment and the death of George Floyd in Minnesota weeks later refocused the contest around issues of racial injustice—helping to clear a space for Booker’s progressive message and attracting endorsements earlier this month from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
“In Kentucky, we’re used to being ignored,” Booker said during an MSNBC interview Tuesday. “Nobody listens to us. Nobody pays attention, nobody hears us when we’re crying out. And so I’m not surprised that as we were building the momentum, a lot of people didn’t see it. But we were working anyhow.”