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While Kentuckians are 'Healthy at Home,' lawmakers holding dangerous gatherings

By Cecilia Aguilera and Ben Carter | March 26, 2020

At great risk to their staff and other state workers, the Kentucky legislature continues to meet in defiance of the necessary social distancing in which every other Kentuckian is engaged. And it’s not just the gathering that’s dangerous — the bills they’re passing are dangerous, too.

While millions of Kentuckians remain “Healthy at Home” to stem the spread of COVID-19, the Kentucky General Assembly passed last week Senate Bill 2, a bill to make it harder to vote. 

If enacted, the bill would require Kentucky voters to present a photo ID at the polls, adding Kentucky to the list of states that unnecessarily require a photo ID at the polls in order to “prevent” in-person voter fraud — a nearly nonexistent issue with an incident rate of 0.0003% to 0.0025%, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute.

The law would require voters to present a form of government-issued ID that bears the voter’s name and photograph. A voter who does not have one of these forms of ID must sign an affirmation and present a secondary form of ID, like a Social Security card, credit card or debit card, or hope that an election official recognizes her and can verify her identity.

Just like climate change won’t prevent the dodo bird’s extinction, photo ID laws don’t prevent in-person voter fraud: That kind of voter fraud is functionally extinct. Instead, what photo ID laws actually prevent is people participating in democracy. So, it should trouble citizens of the commonwealth that the legislature passed Senate Bill 2 at a time when Kentuckians are forbidden from coming to Frankfort to participate in democracy.

Inexplicably, SB 2 was passed in the midst of a pandemic that, as of this writing, has claimed the lives of five Kentuckians and sickened nearly 200. It is unconscionable that the General Assembly would pass this bill now, rather than focusing on legislation to help COVID patients and healthcare professionals, aid Kentuckians impacted by its economic effects, or conduct elections in a way that protects public health and all voters’ ability to cast a ballot.

What’s more, it requires voters to obtain a photo ID before they can vote this November, but all driver’s license issuance locations in the commonwealth have been closed indefinitely due to COVID-19. Gov. Andy Beshear recognizes the logistical challenges SB 2 imposes, particularly in our present crisis. He recently said, “Think about the world we’re living in right now. Our clerks’ offices are closed. How somebody would go in and get an ID right now in the middle of a healthcare crisis, and that be dependent on them voting … that’s a little silly.” Make no mistake: SB 2 will disenfranchise voters, in a year expected to see historic levels of turnout.

At a time when precious financial resources are most needed to combat COVID-19, this bill is not just unnecessary, it is a waste of taxpayer money. Voter ID laws are expensive. For example, between 2007 and 2010, the state of Indiana spent $10 million to provide free IDs to voters. If SB 2 becomes law, Kentucky taxpayers will also have to fund free IDs, as well as voter education, poll worker training and other implementation efforts.

They will also be on the hook for expensive lawsuits challenging the law’s legality. Advocates made lawmakers aware of the proposal’s many shortcomings and explained how to repair them, but the legislature chose to ignore them.

Supporters of Senate Bill 2 have offered zero evidence of the existence of in-person voter fraud in Kentucky. The bill, therefore, seems designed to solve a non-existent problem.

In December 2019, when then-Gov. Matt Bevin made unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, many in the General Assembly rightly condemned his statements as untrue and undermining the public’s faith in election systems. Regrettably, many of those same legislators have implicitly embraced the same meritless, harmful message by supporting this bill.

The primary election and the general election in November face enough challenges as election officials scramble to provide safer options than casting a ballot in person, and this new requirement will just add to the confusion.  And seniors, many of whom have given up driver’s licenses, will have an especially difficult time.

Voting needs to be secure, convenient, fair, accessible and safe. Given the current pandemic, other states are expanding vote by mail, not adding new hoops for voters to jump through. While we’re being safe and healthy at home, we could also be voting from home. Our organizations oppose SB 2 because it’s wrong for Kentucky’s voters.

Cecilia Aguilera is legal counsel at the Fair Elections Center, a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization based in Washington, D.C. Ben Carter is senior litigation and advocacy counsel at the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, a nonprofit poverty law advocacy center.

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