As states across the country took steps this week to make voting easier in light of the novel coronavirus, the Republican-controlled legislature in Kentucky approved a new measure requiring a government-issued photo ID to vote, prompting an outcry from voting-rights groups.
Lawmakers sent the bill to the governor’s desk before recessing until March 26 because of the pandemic, which claimed a second life in the state Thursday.
Nationally, the spread of the disease has brought public life to a standstill, forcing elections officials to postpone contests and encourage citizens to register their preferences by mail. Kentucky is among the states postponing voting in light of the outbreak, as state officials announced this week that the presidential primary scheduled for May 19 would instead take place on June 23.
“In no uncertain terms, we condemn the adoption of a restrictive photo-ID law at a moment when voters face unprecedented obstacles to the ballot box,” Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in an interview. “Many people in Kentucky aren’t even able to visit a state office to obtain ID given office closures and other crisis-related obstacles. Lawmakers should be working on ensuring access to the polls in 2020, and this bill runs fully contrary to that.”
Aides to the state’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, declined to forecast whether he planned to sign the measure into law, saying he hadn’t had a chance to review the final language. He has 10 days to decide what to do. Beshear, who restored voting rights to former felons in an executive order days after he took office, previously said he opposed “unnecessary roadblocks” to voting.
But the governor’s power to block the measure, which would go into effect for the November election, is limited.
Its lead sponsor, Republican State Sen. Robby Mills, said Republican supermajorities in both chambers would move to override a veto.
Mills defended the legislation, which was introduced before the pandemic, as an effort to “build confidence in the election process.” He also said voters could “get a free photo ID at any circuit court clerk’s office.” But the state’s court system has largely shuttered as a result of the pandemic, and numerous county clerk’s offices have closed entirely to the public.
“Photo ID is the standard identification these days, and we think people should show a photo ID to vote,” Mills said.
Voting advocates and civil-liberties groups view matters differently.
“The General Assembly missed an opportunity to move legislation ensuring every Kentuckian who wants to vote in the rescheduled primary in June can do so safely,” said Corey Shapiro, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.
Thirty-four states have some form of identification requirement at the polls, according to the ACLU. Seven have strict rules allowing only limited forms of government-issued ID.
Current guidelines in Kentucky require some form of identification but allow materials like mail or a credit card, or even a poll worker vouching for a voter.
Under the new legislation, only government-issued IDs would be allowed, though the legislation includes a stipulation that voters who lack a photo ID can cast a ballot if they sign an affidavit and have other forms of identification, as well as an excuse for not obtaining the stricter documentation.
Shapiro warned, “Thousands of people who do not meet the newly mandated identification requirements will have to choose between exposing themselves to covid-19 to obtain identification, or being forced to sit on the sidelines on Election Day.”
Amber Duke, communications director for the ACLU’s state branch, said the organization was waiting to see what action the governor took before deciding whether to pursue litigation.
Already legal action to safeguard voting access is underway in other states. The Democratic National Committee and the Wisconsin Democratic Party this week sued Wisconsin elections commissioners in federal court, seeking an emergency judgment extending Wednesday’s deadline to register to vote electronically and by mail and lifting requirements that absentee ballots be received by Election Day.
Wisconsin’s presidential primary is still set for April 7.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, also seeks the invalidation of proof-of-residence and voter-ID requirements for electronic and by-mail voter registration and absentee applications, which the parties argue could hamper participation as “voters are now without access to the scanners and printers needed to generate copies.”
Follow the latest on the outbreak with our newsletter every weekday. All stories in the newsletter are free to access.