By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
When Secretary of State Alison Grimes proposed ways to allow military personnel stationed outside of Kentucky to cast absentee ballots more easily and quickly, nearly everyone said it was a good idea.
But concerns about the integrity of emailed absentee ballots and allowing such ballots to be counted, even if they arrived a couple of days late, have led to different bills in the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House.
Richard Beliles of Common Cause of Kentucky believes it would be relatively easy to hack into those emails and change votes, and many county clerks – just how many is in dispute – raised similar concerns.
So Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, sponsored the bill but altered Grimes’ proposal by removing the email and extra time provisions. The bill passed easily in that chamber.
But Monday the House re-inserted the electronic transmission of ballots and an extra 48 hours beyond 6 p.m. on Election Day during which ballots can be counted.
Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, an ally of Grimes, asked the House to remember in the 2012 election 300 absentee ballots from military personnel were not counted because they were received after 6 p.m. on Election Day.
The amended version passed the House 57-42, largely on party lines, and not without debate.
Several Republican representatives said there is no way to guarantee the secrecy of emailed ballots and that Section 147 requires all elections in Kentucky be by secret ballot.
Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, who served in the military overseas, said he was in charge of mail delivery during his time in the service and it receives the highest priority. He said it shouldn’t often be a problem getting the ballots back by Election Day.
Rep. Tim Couch, R-Hyden, again raised the objections of some county clerks, specifically his own, Leslie County Clerk James Lewis, about the integrity of emailed ballots and allowing them to be counted after Election Day.
Stivers cited those same concerns by county clerks and pointed to a letter from the Kentucky Clerks Association Executive Committee indicating their opposition to those provisions.
But Grimes, a Democrat, said her survey of clerks indicated at least 90 of them support the email and extended time measures. Monday her spokeswoman, Lynn Sowards Zellen, provided a list of those polled by Grimes’ staff prior to the Clerks Association’s Executive Committee’s vote on Feb. 21.
The association’s executive director, Bill May, said there were more than 100 clerks and deputy clerks present when the executive committee vote was taken and no one objected.
Julie Barr, Oldham County clerk and president of the County Clerks Association, said she conducted her own poll last week and, as of Monday, her tally indicated 105 clerks opposed at least one of the two components sought by Grimes.
In addition to concerns about ballot integrity, Barr said electronic ballots allow clerks to see how someone voted and that makes both clerks and voters uncomfortable.
“I’ve talked to military people and they do not want people to know how they voted,” Barr said. “And I don’t want to be put in the position of knowing how they voted.”
Debbie Jones, the Democratic Boyd County clerk, was not listed as an opponent on Barr’s tally, but a call to Jones revealed she, too, opposes electronic voting and holding ballots until certification.
“I do not support Senate Bill 1 with those measures because I’m not for electronic ballots by email,” Jones said. She fears there isn’t sufficient protection against tampering with such ballots.
“And I also do not want to be responsible for holding voted ballots that came in after 6 p.m. Election Day,” Jones said.
Some clerks are listed for the proposal on Grimes’ list and opposed to it on Barr’s.
Republican Barren County Clerk Joanne Logsdon said that’s probably because some of them didn’t fully understand the concerns about privacy when they were first polled by Grimes’ office.
She said some clerks may also be reluctant to voice their concerns publicly because they don’t want to appear not to support the military.
“The clerks are clearly for our military,” Logsdon said. “After all, they’re over there fighting for our right to vote."
But there are some real concerns about Internet security, which is why she opposed the measure, she said.
Grimes and Stumbo have made support of her proposal almost a test of support for the military.
During a trip last year to visit military installations in the Middle East, Grimes said she saw “firsthand the barriers to voting that face our military and overseas voters.
“I’ve studied the options available to overcoming those obstacles and made recommendations that will allow those who are fighting on the battlefields to have their voices heard at the ballot box while ensuring the integrity of our elections,” Grimes continued.
But not everyone agrees, including a number of county clerks of both parties as well as the Republican-controlled Senate.
The bill now goes back to the Senate, which can accept or refuse the House changes. If it refused them, the bill will be taken up by a conference committee made up of members of both chambers.
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.