You don’t have to choose when it comes to improving our electoral system.
The annus horribilis of 2020—which despite what your calendar says is not quite yet over—came with some silver linings. If you squint enough, you can faintly see them. One of them is renewed attention to the functioning of our election system.
As recently as 2019, when I ran for election to be my state’s chief election official, the question I got most often from voters was “what does the secretary of state do?” I don’t get that question anymore. My colleagues and I have seen the secretary of state’s office grow in prominence and perceived importance.
Despite our political and ideological differences, we have something in common: We are custodians of an electoral system that is more secure and more accessible than it has ever been, yet it faces a crisis of public confidence both as to its integrity and its inclusivity. Any government function requires continuous improvement: What improvements does our election system need?
There are plenty of ideas floating around, particularly bad ones. To overgeneralize, Republicans tend toward a myopic focus on security, with insufficient thought to voter access—witness some of the more extreme bills filed in state legislatures to restrict voting. Meanwhile, Democrats tend toward a myopic focus on access, with insufficient thought to security—witness Nancy Pelosi’s ludicrous H.R. 1, which would not just invalidate voter ID laws in Jim Crow states like, uh…Rhode Island, but also limit states in their ability to cross-check their voter lists and prevent double-voting.
Here’s a surprise: Access and security aren’t inherently contradictory. Here’s a bigger surprise: Access and security actually are complementary. No, really, I can explain—but first, some background.
In Kentucky last year, I sought and received bipartisan support in our legislature for a broad grant of emergency powers to be shared between our Democratic governor and me, a conservative Republican, to enable us to adjust election procedures as necessary for voting in a pandemic. By working together, we developed a plan that ensured both access and security, as well as public safety; just as important, though, by being seen working together we reassured voters across the spectrum that the new procedures were fair.
Kentucky’s existing procedures were established in 1891—before automobiles, before electricity in homes—and had yet to be substantially revised since. In our state, typically 2 percent of our voters have voted absentee and 98 percent have voted in-person on one day in a 12-hour span. That model was imperfect and anachronistic, and in a pandemic, it would have been deadly.
For our primary election in the spring, when Kentuckians were just emerging from their homes, expanded absentee voting made sense, and we made it available. For our general election, with expansive absentee voting not feasible given the expected turnout and an election infrastructure not designed for widespread use of that voting method, expanded in-person voting was the key to ensuring safe participation with the spacing out of crowds.
Obviously, giving voters more than one day to vote enhanced access—we saw that with a record turnout. (Would you patronize a bank that was open only one day a week and made you stand in line for half your Tuesday?) But early voting increased both access and security. Career prosecutors who’d tried vote fraud cases told me that early voting made it easier for the election to be monitored and irregularities spotted and limited.
For those who qualified to vote absentee, we implemented a web portal to increase the convenience of application. Here too, improving access also improved security. For the first time, a voter had to prove identity through photo I.D. for an absentee ballot. Also for the first time, now state election officials had the ability to track absentee ballots and watch for any that were lost or stolen. So the absentee portal increased security even as it increased access.
Given the increase in absentee balloting, we needed a ballot curing process to ensure that voters whose signatures had changed over the 10, 20, or even 50 years since they signed voter registration cards had an opportunity to prove their identities if their current signatures on absentee ballot envelopes didn’t match those older signatures. In 2018, 7.5 percent of Kentucky’s absentee ballots were simply thrown in the garbage, with the voters never notified, due to signature mismatch. Our 2020 election plan fixed that; the voters were notified and given a chance to cure by submitting photo ID. Obviously this process facilitated access, but it also improved security: Now we asked the voter, “is this you?”, and if she said no, we had a lead on possible vote fraud.
See a pattern? Our reform measures increased both access and security.
This year, our Republican legislature, initially frosty to these administratively executed reforms, got nearly unanimously behind them. With a working group of state legislators and county clerks, Republicans and Democrats, we put together an omnibus election reform bill that included early voting, the absentee portal, and the cure process. We also included enhanced ability to remove voters from the rolls, a ban on ballot harvesting that made it a felony, a decision to transition away from electronic voting machines and toward universal paper ballots, and other security improvements. Senator Rand Paul threw his public support behind this bill, which passed our state house 93-4, with every Democrat voting for it along with 68 Republicans, and 33-3 in our state senate, with every Democrat present voting for it along with 27 Republicans. You read that right: We got everyone ranging from Rand Paul to the most woke members of our legislature to back it.
Election reforms that improve both access and security are the likeliest to lead to free and fair elections with high turnout, an absence of fraud, and widespread public confidence. Election reform also presents a rare issue where consensus can be built across party lines.
Wider access does not keep Republicans from winning elections. In 2020, in its first election in which expanded opportunities to vote were offered, for the first time Kentucky saw more registered Republicans vote than registered Democrats (our state is not as red as people think; a plurality of registrants are Democrats). The GOP picked up a net 13 state house seats (of 100) and a net 2 state senate seats (of 38). Did greater access actually benefit Republicans? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear it didn’t hurt them.
Here is another reason why election reform to improve security must be mindful of access: The courts will strike it down if it isn’t. Courts are famously hostile to legislation that smacks of one-party manipulation of the election rules (particularly if that party is the Republican Party). Republicans, what’s the point of galvanizing your opposition, recruiting opponents in your next election, and goosing their fundraising, when all you may get to show for it is ultimate invalidation of your accomplishment by a federal judge?
Congressional Democrats believe that if they eliminate reasonable security protocols like voter ID laws and maintenance of voter rolls, then Democrats will win more elections. As U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Kentucky) put it in a recent op-ed, if H.R. 1 becomes law “Republicans will not have total control of Congress for many decades[.]” That’s an unflattering view for Democrats to take of their own party’s appeal, let alone their own party’s electorate.
I think they’re wrong. Either Democrats or Republicans are capable of winning elections, regardless of the election rules. It behooves Republicans, though, not to fall for this trap: Don’t let Democrats get in your (voters’) heads, don’t give them an issue to rile up their base, and most of all don’t give support to their farcical crusade against “vote suppression”; instead, enact election laws that make it possible for legal voters (including your own) to—securely, fairly, non-fraudulently—vote.
Michael Adams is the secretary of state of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.