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Bill continuing early in-person voting clears House panel

February 25, 2021 GMT

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Early voting at polling places would become a fixture in Kentucky’s elections — but at scaled-back levels from last year — under legislation that won bipartisan support Thursday from a House panel.

The measure would allow three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting — including a Saturday — ahead of Election Day. But it wouldn’t continue a temporary, pandemic-related accommodation that allowed widespread mail-in absentee balloting in the 2020 election.

The bill, introduced this week by three House Republicans, cleared the committee and now heads to the GOP-dominated House. It would still need to win Senate approval to clear the General Assembly.

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Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams has praised it as Kentucky’s “most significant election-reform legislation” in nearly three decades. The bill continues some special features allowed in last year’s election because of the COVID-19 pandemic — most notably the early in-person voting.

Last year, pandemic-related rules for Kentucky’s general election included multiple weeks of early in-person voting, including Saturdays, to prevent a crush of Election Day voting. Without new legislation, Kentucky’s election laws will revert to the pre-pandemic rules.

Adams told lawmakers Thursday that it’s “a little arbitrary” to limit most people to voting “on one day in a 12-hour span.”

“I don’t believe in two- and three-week-long elections outside of a pandemic, but a few days makes a big difference in people’s lives, especially a Saturday, which is great for working people,” Adams said.

Adams worked out last year’s pandemic-related election rules with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

Montgomery County Clerk Chris Cockrell told the House committee that thousands of people in his county took advantage of early voting last year.

“The best comment and the one that was repeated the most was: ‘Let’s do this again,’” he said.

The original bill allowed four days of early in-person voting but was trimmed to three days by the committee. The reduction was made because of costs related to early voting, the panel was told.

Kate Miller, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, praised the bill for “building on the momentum” of the 2020 election, when Kentucky had surging voter participation. But she urged lawmakers to “take an even bigger step forward.”

She called for longer polling hours and noted dozens of states allow no-excuse absentee voting.

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Another key feature of the bill would allow counties to establish vote centers, where any voter in the county may vote regardless of precinct. It also would maintain an online portal for Kentuckians to request a mail-in ballot but keep existing restrictions on who can vote by mail. The portal enhances both access to voting and election security, Adams said.

Adams said the measure would make it easier for Kentuckians to vote, contrasting it with proposals in some other states that have sparked heated debates about whether they restrict voting access.

“There’s sort of a false narrative out there that you’re either for voter access or you’re for enhanced integrity of our election system,” Adams told the House committee. “That’s a false choice. You can have both at the same time.”

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The legislation is House Bill 574.