By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — A bill to make it easier for military personnel stationed away from home to cast absentee ballots passed the General Assembly in its final minutes Tuesday night while another to provide scholarships for coal county students ran out of time.
But the military voting bill falls a bit short of what Secretary of State Alison Grimes originally sought.
The measure that passed will allow absentee ballots to be transmitted to military personnel by email or the Internet, but it won’t allow them to be returned that way to avoid perceived security threats.
Senate Bill 1 was sponsored by Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, on behalf of Grimes, a Democrat. Following a trip to the Middle East last year to visit Kentucky troops stationed in that part of the world, Grimes sought changes in the rules of administering such ballots to ensure a greater likelihood military votes would be counted in elections by making it easier to transmit and return them more quickly.
Everyone was initially on board, but almost as soon as Stivers announced he would make the bill the Republican Senate’s top priority, county clerks voiced concerns the ballots could be tampered with by hacking and they would allow clerks’ staff to see how military personnel voted.
The Richard Beliles, of Common Cause, expressed concern that the ballots’ security couldn’t be guaranteed and pointed to cases where such ballots had been hacked.
That led Stivers to change the bill from what Grimes originally envisioned: it allows the ballots to be sent to soldiers by email but they have to be returned by traditional mail. He also eliminated a provision which would allow local county clerks to count ballots up until the total vote was certified, usually 48 hours after polls close — so long as the ballots were transmitted by 6 p.m. on Election Day.
Grimes testified before a Senate committee that in recent elections a significant number of military absentee ballots had to go uncounted because they arrived after 6 p.m. Election Day, even though they clearly were sent before that time and were received before the clerk and local election board certified the total vote count.
But again, clerks opposed that measure, some saying they didn’t want to be responsible for holding voted ballots for two days.
Grimes and Stivers made several attempts to satisfy the other’s concerns, but in the end, Stivers said Wednesday, Grimes and other supporters of the measure weren’t able to overcome the security concerns.
“I’m disappointed it couldn’t go further,” said Stivers, adding that Grimes and her staff worked well with him in trying to produce a good bill to help military personnel. “But the lack of confidence in the technology and security just meant it couldn’t go any further.”
Grimes released a statement Tuesday night saying the passage of the bill “is one step forward in ensuring (military personnel) voices are heard. I will continue to work on their behalf to ensure no military or overseas voter ever has to question whether his or her vote counts. I’m proud that we have started this conversation and taken the first step in this critical legislation.”
There was also a legislative casualty Tuesday night as lawmakers raced the clock to complete unfinished business.
A House bill, sponsored by Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, to expand a college scholarship program for students in coal-producing counties and funded from coal severance taxes got bogged down by an unrelated Senate amendment and ultimately didn’t make it to the House floor.
When the Senate combined Combs’ measure with a bill sponsored by Sen. Katie Kratz Stine, R-Southgate, which would stiffen penalties for heroin trafficking, it drew criticism from a Democratic senator.
Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, objected to putting two such unrelated measures into one bill in order to pass one which had been rejected by the House. (Stine’s bill would have increased penalties and made trafficking in the specified narcotics as a legal cause for any overdoes death. Critics say it created a capital offense although Stine disputed that contention.)
Neal rose to speak at 11:35 p.m., and asked President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, if Senate rules didn’t allow him 30 minutes to speak.
Stivers said Neal had 30 minutes, which would have meant Neal could in effect “filibuster” the bill by speaking until midnight when the session had to end.
But after speaking for less than 10 minutes, Neal said he wouldn’t use the parliamentary procedure because the combination bill contained the legislation for scholarships.
After the Senate passed the bill 34-4, staff was unable to get it to the House in time for that chamber to act before the clock struck midnight.
Stivers and Stumbo both said Wednesday they supported the scholarship provisions of the bill and expressed disappointment time ran out on the bill.
Stivers said the failure to pass the bill was due to nothing more than a lack of time.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.