FRANKFORT, Ky. – Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, in an exclusive interview with Spectrum News 1, said he admits the country’s recent political polarization played a large part in the high voter turnout during the 2020 General Election. Still, he also believes changes made to the state’s election process had an even more prominent role.
What You Need To Know
- Election reforms were true bipartisan effort
- Michael Adams says House Bill 574 is his cornerstone accomplishment
- He expects voter turnout to increase year over year
- Plans to implement a civic literacy project to help voters be more informed
“Last year, Gov. Beshear and I worked across party lines to accommodate our election process to the pandemic, and we had the most secure and successful election we’ve ever seen,” Adams said. “This year, the General Assembly has followed suit, working across party lines to enact the most significant reform of our election system since 1891. This is a triumph of both policy and process.”
Adams, a Republican, said House Bill 574 is his most significant accomplishment since he took office in January 2020. Adams said HB 574 makes Kentucky’s elections more accessible and more secure at the same time. It was signed into law April 7, 2021, by Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat.
“While other states are caught up in the partisan division, Kentucky is leading the nation in making it both easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Adams said. “House Bill 574 is a once-a-century reform that we were long overdue for, and I've really tried to use this office in a way others haven’t.”
HB 574 enacts the following items:
- Law creates three days of early in-person voting, including a Saturday, with no excuse required
- Enhances the ability of state election officials to remove nonresident voters from the voter rolls
- Transitions toward universal paper ballots statewide
- Keeps the online voter portal making absentee balloting fully transparent for voters and election officials
- Permits counties to establish vote centers, where any voter in the county may vote regardless of the precinct
- Expressly prohibits and penalizes ballot harvesting
- Retains the signature cure process so absentee voters whose signatures have changed over time have a chance to prove identity and have their ballots counted.
Although the bill garnered bipartisan support, Adams said getting it passed was not as easy as it may seem.
“I had a lot of challenges. People don't see that,” Adams said. “I took a lot of heat.”
Adams pointed to a framed certificate on the wall of his office.
“That's a commission I gave myself as ‘Benedict Adams,’” he said. “It was my nickname here six months ago. There's a lot of backbiting in this business. I told the media, at the first of the year, that before we got our bill passed, I thought the governor had a better chance to get extended gaming than I had to get expanded voting. I thought the odds were about 30%. I was pleasantly surprised we got it passed.”
Adams said it wasn't easy by any means, adding it took a lot of work and he was successful because Kentucky got the politics “better and smarter than the other states did.”
Georgia, for example, passed a bill that really wasn't that objectionable,” Adams said. “The problem was one state representative in Georgia had proposed a bill to ban voting on Sundays, and in Georgia, African-Americans traditionally vote on Sundays and early voting – from church to the polls – this was targeted at hurting Black turnout. That was pretty reprehensible. What got lost in the new shuffle was that it didn't become part of the ultimate legislation that got passed. But it put a bad sheen on everything that was being done. So, I think, part of what made things more successful here is we just had the politics better. We were bipartisan. We didn't write a Republican election bill, as they did in Georgia, or other states. We didn't run a Democratic election, as they did in Washington, and try to pass that. We did a bipartisan bill. It wasn't targeting any group of voters.”
With Kentucky’s 2022 Primary Election less than a year away, Adams said he is “excited” to see the full scope of election reforms take shape.
“Most states have one every year; at least we get this year off,” he said. “We're going to implement all the stuff we just passed. Next year will be the first time we've had a normal election with the expanded voting rules.”
Adams shot down any ideas that the bipartisan support of HB 574 has anything to do with Kentucky not being a battleground state and having a Republican supermajority in the legislature.
“I don't believe that,” Adams said. “We're not a battleground state in the presidential race, but we're a battleground state for governor. We're a battleground state for lots of state representative seats. In 2018, we had six seats decided by 25 votes or fewer. So, we are a competitive state. We’re 46% Democrat and 44% Republican. Kentucky is a two-party state with a two-party system that's healthy. The fact that we are a competitive state helped us get this through because if we were just a one-party state, one side would have passed new rules to help themselves and one side would have disputed the new rules, but both sides came together with these. This passed almost unanimously in both chambers. It was promoted by the Republican Secretary of State signed by the Democratic governor. I think the fact that we are competitive actually made this easier to pass.”
People who were suspicious of mail-in absentee voting had a reasonable right to be, Adams said, adding only time could quell their concerns.
“They were right to be suspicious in the beginning, but that suspicion really dissipated once people saw we had new security protocols,” he said. “We had never actually tracked absentee ballots before, which we did this time. My predecessors never knew how many were floating around, who had asked for them, how many were sent, or how many came back. It just wasn't tracked.”
Purging names from the voter rolls has also been an effort spearheaded by Adams. This past April, for the fourth consecutive month, more voters were removed from Kentucky’s rolls than added. In March, 4,596 new voters registered, and 6,611 voters were removed – 4,622 deceased voters, 1,447 voters who voluntarily de-registered, and 542 felony convicts. There are 2,015 fewer voters on the rolls as of March 31 than on Feb. 28, a 0.06% decrease.
“Accurate voter rolls contribute to secure elections, and in turn, to public confidence in our system,” said Adams. “We've been transparent about who we're talking off the voting rolls and why. We’ve been transparent about how much absentee voting there is. We've been transparent about how much early voting there is. And, I think, that really clams people's fears and hopefully these conspiracy theories by just offering the facts.”
Adams said the need for election reform in Kentucky was in black-and-white, as Kentucky rated 44th in election administration out of the 50 states.
“It’s not a shot at my predecessor. It was a shot at the laws and how unduly restrictive they were,” Adams said. “There's no good reason to make people go vote on one day and wait in line. It's just absurd. What are other government services offered only one day a week and make you stand in line for hours? It's just ridiculous. We had an election code that was written in the horse-and-buggy era before cars, before electricity. This was when they wrote our election code that I inherited. It was incumbent on me to try to find ways to improve that, and we did. I'd say our election rules are as good as any in America, and I know that because I'm getting calls from other states with requests for advice on how they might improve their election laws.”
Adams said Kentucky is the only state in America that has passed bipartisan legislation this year to improve the election process. He said some states have tried to strengthen election security by hurting access, while other states are trying to improve access, but are hurting security.
“That's the lesson I've tried to tell other states is you can have both and, and, in fact, you need both because otherwise, you're going to have half of your constituents thinking you're up to no good trying to rig the election for your party. You can't have that,” he said. “That mentality hurts turnout. Look at Georgia. One of the reasons the turnout dropped in their runoff election in January from their November election is that many people thought that the election was fraudulent – that rules were rigged and so forth – I don't believe that, but a lot of voters did. And if voters think that you're not serious about security, they won’t turn out. That's another form of suppression. Suppression isn’t always a left-wing thing. Sometimes it's a right-wing thing. You've got people that don't trust the elections and don't vote because they don't think they're secure. That also hurts your turnout.”
Adams anticipates voter turnout in Kentucky to increase with every election.
“I think you'll see turnout really trend upward,” he said. “Not immediately, but as people learn the new rules and conveniences over the next couple of cycles, I think you'll see the turnout go up significantly.”
Now that Adams has been successful in implementing reforms to the election process, he plans to use his office to increase the civic literacy of Kentucky’s electorate and get away from people’s idea that his position is a “paper-pushing” job.
“When I was campaigning, the first question I always got from an audience member is, ‘What does the Secretary of State do?’ because no one had any idea because no one ever did anything,” he said. “I think in this office and made something of it; made it an important office. I've raised its prominence and made it a place of reform. I've tried to govern the way governors have traditionally approached their jobs, which is to offer a vision, a legislative agenda, and lobby and get it passed. I think I've been more successful at that than the governor has, actually.”
As for increasing civic literacy, Adams mentioned surveys that show an alarming number of people don't know who their governor or U.S. senator is.
“There's a big problem with civic literacy,” he said. “My guess is people know who Andy Beshear is – he's probably pretty close to 100% because he’s been on TV almost every day for more than a year. My guess is I probably have a better name ID than my predecessors just because I've been on television and in the papers so much. We also do a good job with our social media presence.”
While high voter turnout is good, Adams said voters must know what they are doing when they go to the polls.
“If I just worry about improving the system, then people that don't know anything start swaying elections,” he said. “We're working on a civic literacy project. Polarization drives up turnout, but it also creates other problems.”
Improving Kentuckians’ civic literacy goes well beyond making sure people know where to vote, which Adams admitted is essential and doing what he can to help voters accept and process information.
“We have more information available to voters than there's ever been,” he said. “You can just get online and Google someone and find out their history. So, in a sense, education has improved, but literacy has declined even though we have more information – we're doing a bad job of sorting it out and separating fact from fiction.”
Adams said some media outlets had made the mistake of being ideological and political on one side, making the other side not trust the news.
“They're looking for other voices,” he said. “Some of those voices are legitimate, some are not and it's hard for people to tell the difference. One of the things we're thinking through is how to present Kentuckians with a way to sort these things out and determine the credible sources and how to sort through what they're being told. If people rely on misinformation, we're going to have a lot of trouble.”
Adams’ name has been floated as a potential challenger to Beshear in 2023. Still, he said while he is not ruling out a run for governor in the future, it will not likely be during the next gubernatorial election.
“I'm not thinking about politics right now,” he said. “I'm just focused on making voting better for Kentuckians.”