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Bipartisan Bill In Kentucky Might Keep Voter Access Expansions After COVID-19

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There are partisan battles going on right now over new voting laws in states including Georgia and Arizona - not so much in Kentucky. There, a bipartisan election reform bill is making its way through the legislature. Kentucky Public Radio's Ryland Barton has more.

RYLAND BARTON, BYLINE: Kentucky Republicans could pass an election reform bill without help from Democrats. The GOP controls three-quarters of the seats in the legislature. But now Democrats are lining up in support of legislation that would keep some of the policies put in place last year that expanded voting access during the coronavirus pandemic. State Representative Buddy Wheatley was one of 25 Democrats who voted in favor of the bill in the House. He said last year's election showed that voting can be different.

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BUDDY WHEATLEY: The things that were so positive about the COVID or the 2020 election helped create the mindset that we all don't just vote on Election Day. There are other options.

BARTON: Before the pandemic, Kentucky had some of the most restrictive election laws in the country. The state only allowed people to cast ballots early or by mail if they had an excuse, like a medical condition or if they temporarily resided outside their home county. But last year Democratic Governor Andy Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams temporarily changed that to try and reduce crowds on Election Day.

For the first time ever, every Kentucky voter could vote by mail or vote early if they were concerned about contracting the virus, and it led to record high voter turnout. That left lawmakers wondering if they should keep some of the temporary provisions where there was consensus. Republican State Representative Jennifer Decker is the main sponsor of a bill to do just that. She says the cost of expanding some access is worth it.

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JENNIFER DECKER: Because we understand that we have got to have the fairest and freest elections that we can put together.

BARTON: Decker's bill would create three days of early voting across the state and allow people to fix their signatures if they signed their mail-in ballot incorrectly. And though voters would once again have to have an excuse to vote by mail, they would be able to request their ballots through an online portal instead of through their local county clerks. Republican Secretary of State Adams said the bill made him proud to be a Kentuckian.

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MICHAEL ADAMS: In many other states right now, legislatures are debating restricting access of their voters to the ballot - not here in Kentucky. What you all are debating today and hopefully considering is actually making it easier for voters to vote.

BARTON: The bill also includes election security measures typically favored by Republicans, like a ban on so-called ballot harvesting, where people collect and submit ballots for absentee voters. It would also make it easier for the secretary of state to remove people who've moved out of Kentucky from the state's voter rolls. University of Kentucky law professor Joshua Douglas says the bill is a mild expansion of voting in the state and that he wishes it did more like keeping the expansion of mail-in voting.

JOSHUA DOUGLAS: You know, it's not the bill that I would have written. It doesn't have everything I want, but it has a lot of things I like and not a ton of things I hate.

BARTON: But Douglas says the bill is an example of how compromise can still work in the political process.

DOUGLAS: It doesn't have to devolve into partisan squabbles. If we all come together with one common ideal in mind, which is having a robust, inclusive and secure democracy - and all of those things are possible. They're not mutually exclusive.

BARTON: The measure still has to be considered by the Senate, but it's not the only election bill lawmakers have considered. Another one - earlier this year, they passed legislation stripping the governor and secretary of state of their power to change the election procedures during states of emergency. For NPR News, I'm Ryland Barton in Frankfurt, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS SONG, "THE FEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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