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Kentucky Senate passes bill revoking many election powers from Secretary of State; now heads to House

By Tom Latek
Kentucky Today

A bill stripping most of the election powers away from the Secretary of State passed the full Senate on Tuesday.

The measure, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, originally would only prevent the access, modification or altering voter registration records by the secretary of state, individual members of the State Board of Elections, or any staff member of the Secretary of State’s office.

However, after a series of articles by Pro Publica and the Lexington Herald-Leader alleging improper access to and use of the voter registration records by current Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and other employees in Grimes’ office, Thayer added several more provisions:

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer talks about his bill to limit powers of the secretary of state on Tuesday. (Photo by Tom Latek, Kentucky Today)

• The State Board of Elections will become an independent agency of state government.

• The Secretary of State will no longer preside over or be a voting member of the State Board of Elections but shall remain as an ex-officio, non-voting member, while maintaining the status of chief election officer of the state.

• Two new members would be appointed by the Governor to the State Board: two county clerks nominated by the Kentucky County Clerks Association, one Democrat and one Republican, increasing the number of voting members of the Board from seven to eight.

• The Executive Director of the State Board of Elections would only vote in the case of a tie in selecting the chair of the Board of Elections.

• The Board Chair, elected by a majority vote of the other members would preside over board meetings.

• The age requirement for appointment to the Board would drop from 25 to 21.

• The State Board would be responsible for oversight of Board personnel, including hiring, investigations, disciplinary actions, promotions and other actions.

• The Secretary of State would be removed from the responsibility of implementing provisions and promulgating administration regulations.

While presenting his bill on the Senate floor, Thayer told his colleagues the current Secretary of State is being investigated by three different agencies.

“We need to send a strong message to the voters of this Commonwealth before the next election, which takes place in May,” he told his colleagues, “that the integrity of the ballot box and the voter registration rolls has been protected by the legislative branch of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, stuck up for his fellow Democrat saying, “Now is the worst time that we could enact any kind of legislation that’s going to disrupt and interfere without election process.”

“If we pass this bill,” he added, “we are throwing the entire 2019 and 2020 election process into chaos.” He urged lawmakers to let the investigations take their course before passing any legislation.

Thayer disagreed, saying, “The very integrity of the office of Secretary of State has been brought into question. And this legislative body needs to send a strong message to the voters of this commonwealth right now, today, with this vote, that the integrity of the voter registration rolls of this commonwealth shall not be compromised, not matter who is the elected Secretary of State.”

Grimes said the legislation would “disrupt Kentucky’s 2019 elections”in expressing her disappointment.

“I am disappointed that the Republican majority is attempting to polarize the fair and impartial administration of elections in Kentucky by stripping the Secretary of State’s Office of its ability to discharge the legal duties of the Commonwealth’s Chief Election Official,” she said. “I will carefully review any legislation enacted and take all legal actions necessary to preserve the integrity of Kentucky’s elections. The Republican effort to now change the laws applicable to the Secretary of State’s Office makes clear that my office has at all times discharged its duties in compliance with existing law.”

The bill was approved on a 27-8 vote and now heads to the House for consideration.

The legislation is Senate Bill 34.

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