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Kentucky votes amid COVID-19, suppression claims as late voters are allowed into polling site

Cincinnati Enquirer logo Cincinnati Enquirer 6/24/2020 Phillip M. Bailey and Joe Sonka, Louisville Courier Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kentuckians streamed into polling places across the state on Tuesday during a historic primary election that withstood a global pandemic and outside worries of voter suppression.

When polls opened at 6 a.m., a line had formed at the lone voting location in Jefferson County — the cavernous Kentucky Exposition Center at the state fairgrounds.

Those who showed up throughout the day described their experience as quick and easy, with most saying the traffic entering and leaving the parking lot was the most difficult task.

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Conflict erupted, though, when the Jefferson County Clerk's Office closed the doors at 6:03 p.m., just after the announced time for voting to cease throughout the state, leaving a crowd of about 50 people outside.

a close up of a pair of sunglasses on a table: Wanda Wilson wears an American flag mask and face protection while handing out ballots during Kentucky's primary voting on election day at the Kentucky Expo Center. June 23, 2020 © Alton Strupp/Courier Journal Wanda Wilson wears an American flag mask and face protection while handing out ballots during Kentucky's primary voting on election day at the Kentucky Expo Center. June 23, 2020

About a dozen voters pounded on the glass doors and shouted, "Let us in!"

The campaign of state Rep. Charles Booker, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, sought an injunction to allow the polling place to stay open until 9 p.m., according to a tweet from campaign manager Colin Lauderdale.

Kentucky's primary election results: Click here to view

A judge partially granted that request and kept the doors open only until 6:30 p.m., which allowed the group to enter the polling place, according to Nore Ghibaudy, spokesman for the Jefferson County Clerk's Office and board of elections.

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Shortly before 7 p.m., Booker's challenger for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, announced in a tweet that her campaign was also seeking an injunction to keep the Jefferson County polls open longer, but poll workers were already dismantling the voting site by then.

Secretary of State Michael Adams projected Kentuckians were on track to cast about 1.1 million primary ballots, which would shatter the commonwealth's previous record of 922,456 votes set in 2008, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were still battling for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.

If the projection holds true, it would mean nearly 32% of registered voters turned out to vote in the 2020 primary (by absentee or in person) — very close to the 32.3% turnout rate in 2008.

RECAP: Here's what happened in Kentucky on a historic Election Day

In the last presidential election year of 2016, exactly 669,642 Kentuckians voted in the primary, a turnout rate of just over 20%.

Because of the large amount of absentee ballots in this election, complete vote totals for many races won't be available until June 30, Adams said.

“I thought it was going to take six hours,” Ashley Edison, 27, a first time voter, told The Courier Journal early Tuesday.

Aaron Rollins, 35, said he didn’t have trouble voting either, but he called it a "terrible idea" to have only one polling site in the state's most populous city.

"In a city this large, voting should be made easier,” he said. "It was clearly an attempt to disenfranchise people."

Rollins, who is Black, pointed out he was able to drive to the expo center but how many others may not be as fortunate, he asked.

Civil rights groups, such as the Louisville Urban League, helped residents with free rides, while volunteers were stationed at traditional polling places to direct voters to the fairgrounds.

Louisville's public bus system offered a free shuttle service from Union Station, 1000 W. Broadway, to the expo center throughout the day, as well.

Lines move fast in Louisville, but not Lexington

Inside the expo center, the massive South Wing was filled with about 350 voting booths, as volunteers and county clerk representatives escorted voters to their proper location.

Outside the facility, Louisville Metro Councilwoman Keisha Dorsey helped elderly and disabled voters get into the facility. She secured a handful of wheelchairs from the fairgrounds and local churches to help escort those residents.

"There was a need to make sure the disabled had the ability to get into the facility after they were dropped off," Dorsey said.

National Democrats and other well-known celebrities, however, continued to raise concern about how the state's rescheduled primary was an attempt at keeping certain people from the polls.

"Kentucky has one polling place for 616,000 voters," Rep. Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, said in a tweet Tuesday. "Mitch McConnell has allowed the bill to restore the Voting Rights Act to sit on his desk for months to reap the benefits. This is clear voter suppression."

Criticism of Kentucky's rescheduled primary and Louisville's single polling place spread across social media over the weekend. 

Kentucky's primary had initially been a source of bipartisan boasting among state leaders, who created a plan to allow registered voters to mail in absentee ballots and vote early in an effort to minimize the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic.

"So far today, Kentucky’s a national success story — I’m not seeing 600,000 people in line to vote," Adams, a Republican, told reporters early in the day outside the expo center.

"The lines inside are not lines at all," he added. "They’re very manageable."

Prior to the crowd that gathered outside the doors at 6 p.m., the longest line of the day was the one for the food truck parked outside the expo center during lunchtime.

In Lexington, though, some voters who showed up at Kroger Field waited for an hour and a half or more to vote on Tuesday.

"I think considering all the totality of the circumstances, it’s gone about as well as it could have gone," Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins told The Courier Journal Tuesday afternoon.

While Kroger Field, the site of Lexington's voting, featured spacious concourses for social distancing while in line, a bottleneck formed at the check-in stations at the Central Bank Field Club where actual voting took place.

Throughout the day, multiple voting stations were empty because the check-in process prevented enough voters from getting through the line to use them all at once.

"About noon or 12:30, we finally got some extra check-in stations, and that’s helped it go a lot faster," Blevins said. "But we’re just getting a lot of people voting, and it’s going to be what it’s going to be."

For subscribers: Kentuckians with felonies vote in first election since Beshear restored voting rights

Voters reported spending between one and two hours in line. After standing in line for close to 90 minutes, voter Chuck Perry offered a bit of levity:

"It's like I was at Disney," he said. "Stand in line for more than an hour for a five-minute ride."

Otherwise, problems were few across the state. In Pike County, Kentucky's largest county geographically, County Clerk Rhonda Taylor said six polling places were open and running smoothly.

“I was fortunate enough where the state worked with me and they heard my need and they obliged me, so I was very grateful,” Taylor said of the extra polling places. “It’s working out really well.”

Madison County Clerk Kenny Barger said they have three polling locations open and that he has heard some people waited around 10 to 15 minutes to vote.

“We’ve had lines today … but they’re moving,” he said, and noted that the lines have been shorter than those they typically see at some of their usual precincts during a normal election.

Final results not expected until June 30

The nation focused on Kentucky's primary election because of a suddenly competitive Democratic contest to decide who will challenge U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the fall campaign.

McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot who has raised more than $41 million during the primary, had been the presumed front-runner for months against Booker, the state representative from Louisville, and Lincoln County farmer Mike Broihier.

But in recent weeks, Booker began to surge as a result of national protests over controversial fatal police shootings and encounters, including that of an unarmed 26-year-old Louisville woman, Breonna Taylor, who was killed in May.

The Booker campaign had cast the limited polling places for the in-person primary as a plot to quash his historic bid to be the first Black nominee in the state Democratic Party's history.

Booker arrived at the polls in Louisville around 10 a.m., where he urged supporters to make their voices heard. He said state officials took steps to ensure absentee voting was easier this year but added having just one polling location in the most populous county "naturally" suppressed the vote.

"Just because turnout is going to be higher doesn't mean that votes won't be suppressed," Booker said. "That just means we're determined. It should not be hard to vote. One location is not enough."

On Monday, Adams, the secretary of state, said nearly 1 million Kentuckians — 973,807 — had either requested an absentee ballot or voted early before Tuesday's primary. As of Monday evening, county clerks across the state had received more than 503,400 of those ballots back in the mail.

Adams said most of the commonwealth's 120 counties have decided to wait until June 30 — the state's one-week deadline for returns from the election — to release their full results.

Some counties, though, were expected to release partial totals — from Tuesday's in-person vote — not including absentee ballots.

"My office is going to be transparent tonight. Whatever information that we receive from counties, we're going to provide to media and to the public," Adams said Tuesday morning. "That said, most of our counties have decided as a matter of local policy that they're going to hold results until June 30 and then announce them. And then we'll make that available."

Courier Journal writers Ben Tobin, Billy Kobin, Morgan Watkins and Jon Hale contributed to this report.

Reach Phillip M. Bailey at pbailey@courier-journal.com or 502-582-4475. Follow him on Twitter at @phillipmbailey.

Comparing primary turnout over the years

(Primary year; Total voted; Registered voters; Total turnout %)

2020 (estimated): 1,100,000   3,476,393   31.6%

2019: 664,708  3,421,799  19.4%

2018: 806,248   3,368,112   23.9%  

2016:   669,642   3,243,078   20.6% 

2015: 397,778   3,185,930     12.5% 

2012:  415,337   2,980,008   13.9%  

2008: 922,456    2,857,231   32.3% 

2004: 381,334    2,706,593   14.1% 

2000: 356,348    2,504,443   14.2%  

1996: 421,245   2,312,613   18.2% 

1992: 514,508    1,936,109   26.6% 

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky votes amid COVID-19, suppression claims as late voters are allowed into polling site

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