NCSL Podcasts

Kentucky Backs Bipartisan Election Reform | Episode 8

Episode Summary

As the pandemic raged during 2020, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, and Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, were required by law to team up on the question of whether to postpone the election. They went much further, with bipartisan support from the Legislature, and instituted a long window for voting in a state that in modern times had only allowed voting on Election Day, with a few exceptions for absentee ballots. Voter turnout was high, and ballot security was unquestioned. That led the state to pass a bipartisan bill in 2021 making some of the expanded access permanent.

Episode Transcription

This is Across the Aisle, the podcast about bipartisanship from the National Conference of State Legislatures. I’m Kelley Griffin 


Today we’re going to talk about bipartisanship in Kentucky related to election laws. 


It happened initially because the law and the pandemic gave the parties no choice. According to Kentucky law, the secretary of state—Republican Michael Adams—and Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat—were the two people who had the authority, together, to postpone an election due to an emergency. 


Adams says he and Beshear made that decision easy enough.

Adams And so the, the law says if the Secretary of State recommends it, the governor can do it. But you basically both have to turn the key, right? So in, in, uh, mid-March of 2020 when it was clear that Covid was gonna be a factor in how we were gonna run our elections, uh, the governor and I agreed without really much discussion at all, that we had to delay the election, uh, as, as long as we could under that law, which was five weeks, just to have time to even figure out what to do, let alone to start doing it. 

But they realized pandemic impact was so massive, they needed to make other changes in the way the 2020 primary and general elections would be run.


Adams Most of both parties voted then to, uh, expand the power of both the governor and me jointly to change not just the, the day of the election, but other things about the election. And had it not been for that bipartisan agreement early on, then we would've had, Lord knows what happened, uh, in our election.

The first order of business was to give people more time to vote. Kentucky had polls open only 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on election day., with no early voting. It had among the strictest voting rules in the country.  Voters could obtain absentee ballots if they could prove they had a reason they couldn’t vote that day, but few ever did. But remember in June that year, when their primary was held, many things were still shut down, and people didn’t go out much. So, the state had staffers quickly put together an online portal in time for the June primary. Voters could request a ballot, get it in the mail, and deliver it to voting centers as early as three weeks before election day. The system even allowed them to track their ballot through the process.


That was a big hit with voters: 75 percent cast their ballot by “absentee.” 


Adams - What we found in 2020 is we actually had a cleaner election because of early voting. There were a bunch of predictions that we'd have all this fraud, and we just didn't. 8:30Because in Kentucky, when we have vote fraud, it generally takes the form of vote buying. It's generally some poor part of the state in a small area where some local candidate is, is buying votes with cash or alcohol.  If you run an operation like that on one day, maybe you can get away with it. But we found is that when you expand the voting periods, it's harder to pull that operation off because your exposure increases.” 

In addition, the state had instituted a signature curing process, which means that if a ballot signature did not look like the one on file, the voter would be contacted to confirm their ballot. Adam says that process resulted in far fewer “spoiled” ballots, where the signature couldn’t be confirmed. 

He calls the 2020 primary and general elections “flawless,” and others agree. Plus, the turnout was high – nearly 195,000 more people cast ballots compared to the 2016 presidential race. Then the question became: Should the state make any of those changes permanent? And of course, this was unfolding as then-President Donald Trump and his followers spread claims of election fraud. While those were knocked down in dozens of court cases, it prompted concerns about security in many statehouses.

In Kentucky, Democrats wanted to keep the extended early voting and expand access with mail-in ballots. Republicans were still wary; they thought the most secure approach would be to return to a single day of voting. 

Adams came up with a theme that caught on: Make it easier to vote—and harder to cheat.

Freshman Rep. Jennifer Decker was on board with that. She liked that early voting increased turnout. And she came to see that the measures could be implemented with no threat to security. House leadership asked her to carry a bill to address the pandemic changes. 

Decker    - it seemed that we needed to involve every professional elections official in our state to make sure that we were on target and that they would support this legislation. We felt it had the best chance to succeed if we had heard from all stakeholders. 

Decker invited each of the states 120 county clerks—a bipartisan group itself—and other stakeholders to weigh in, so share their wish list for elections. Adams and the Governor’s office were closely involved too.

Decker was insistent that only the ideas that found consensus would be in the bill. 

Decker - “We decided that we did not want to fight out battles in the legislation. We wanted to get what we could to strengthen the integrity and expand voting. And then we decided that the other matters that certain interest groups wanted, they could do in separate legislation, either that year or in future years. 

By the time the bill was passed in the House, it added early voting at vote centers, the Thursday, Friday and Saturday before an election. Decker says those were the days that saw the most voting in the pandemic even when it was allowed much earlier. As for absentee ballots, voters still need a reason to obtain one, but they can vote up to 10 days before voting in person begins. 

Decker says the three days weren’t enough for some people, and too much for others. She recalls spending two hours answering questions when she presented it in the Senate from Republicans who were worried it wouldn’t be secure. She reminded them of the broad support from election officials and the near unanimous support in the House. 

While things were unfolding in the Statehouse, Adams was doing what he could to educate voters about the changes. 

Adams  And so part of my argument to sell this was that in Kentucky we had early voting in the 17 hundreds and 18 hundreds we had in the, in our state constitution, our first two state constitutions four day voting periods, which made sense cuz we're a rural state. It takes time to get to the polls. And you know, it's kind of ironic. But Democrats mostly live close together because the urban areas are more Democratic, and Republicans live far apart. They live in the rural areas that are more, more conservative.  And certainly I don't push early voting to help one side or the other. It's utilized roughly the same by voters of, of both sides. But I wanted to make the point that this is something that the founding fathers came up with. This isn't some radical idea, uh, that's brand new and untested. 

In the end, Democrats got behind the bill because if it wasn’t all they wanted, it still created more access to polls. 

U.S. Rep. Morgan McGarvey was a state Senator at the time. 

McGarvey I wanted to see the rules in place for 2020 put into law. The elections worked really well. We had great participation. And by the way, my party lost . So, you know, I'm, I'm not saying this for some selfish reason.


He notes that some states revised voting to become more restrictive, but even then, they were still less restrictive than Kentucky’s new rules. But he believed the bill at hand was the best they could get. 

McGarvey And so when the Legislature came back in, in 2021, I was really pleased that the reaction to 2020 was to expand voting in Kentucky. Not restricted, we didn't go as far as I would've gone, but I think we still made progress.

Adams says those two ideas—access to voting and security of the vote—are not opposed, even though the parties have squared off about it in other states. 

Adams  - The Democrats love the access part and the Republicans love the security part. And so both sides got what they wanted 

Adams says it was particularly important for this process to start with the cooperation between him—a Republican—and the Democratic governor. 


Adams I do think it was good overall for public confidence in the election to have a D and an R at the table together working it out, appearing jointly at press conferences because that meant that it was unlikely that one side would claim the other side was gonna rig the rules. /// The Democrats saw the governor and the Republicans saw me. And so both sides thought, well yeah, this, this must be fair cuz my guy’s at the table.?


I’m Kelley Griffin. Thanks for listening to Across the Aisle. What kind of bipartisan work has happened in your statehouse? Please drop us a line, the email is

And check out NCSL’s other podcasts. There’s The Inside Storey where NCSL’s CEO Tim Storey interviews experts in leadership and legislatures. The podcast Our American States dives into some of the most challenging public policy issues facing legislatures today. And also check out our special series “Building Democracy” which looks at the colorful history of legislatures. Find them wherever you get your podcasts.