FRANKFORT — A Senate committee applied the brakes Thursday to a proposal by Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes to let overseas military members vote electronically, citing concerns about the potential for hackers to alter ballots.
At the urging of Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, the committee voted along party lines to amend the bill to require ballots to be returned by mail, instead of fax or electronic transmission. The amendment also set up a study of electronic voting, to be completed by Nov. 27.
After the committee unanimously approved the amended version of Senate Bill 1, Stivers acknowledged that he had consulted with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell about the measure. McConnell, a Republican, is seeking re-election next year. Many Democrats are urging Grimes to run against him.
"We asked Sen. McConnell's office to look at it because he has been involved in it," said Stivers, adding that McConnell's office is aware of voting procedures prescribed by the U.S. Department of Defense.
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Stivers said McConnell did not recommend changes to the bill.
"No, these were from the county clerks association," he told a reporter after the meeting.
McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer said McConnell's staff provided "technical input to Senator Stivers, but our office did not draft the amendments nor did we see them before they were adopted."
"As an author of the Help America Vote Act, which devoted an entire title to enhancing the ability of the military to vote, Senator McConnell has a long history on the issue and has long been committed to ensuring that every vote counts while safeguarding the integrity of our ballots," Steurer said in a written statement.
Grimes also was asked whether McConnell was involved in changes to the bill. "You will have to ask the president about his conversations," she said. "My focus is fighting for our men and women in uniform, not against them."
Stivers said the Kentucky County Clerks Association Election Committee requested that the ballots be returned via normal mail because of concerns about the integrity of elections. That concern was expressed to the Senate committee by Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins.
Stivers' spokeswoman, Lourdes Baez-Schrader, said Blevins, who is Stivers' former brother-in-law, volunteered to testify.
With no elections this year, Stivers said, there's no harm in studying the issue of electronic transmission of ballots. The idea could be reconsidered by next year's General Assembly, he said.
The amendment "waters down the bill," said Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, who voted against the change.
Grimes said 24 states allow electronic transmission of votes. Currently, Kentucky mails absentee ballots to soldiers, but it sometimes takes too long for them to be delivered and returned, particularly if a soldier is in a war zone.
Grimes said in her testimony that Kentucky sent more than 4,600 absentee ballots overseas last year. Of those, 3,665 were returned by mail and more than 300 were never counted for various reasons.
Another amendment approved by the Senate Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection Committee would require overseas ballots to be returned by 6 p.m. on the day of the election. Grimes had proposed allowing two extra days to receive the ballot if it had been cast a day before the election.
"We wanted that amendment so we could tell somebody that night if they were a winner or loser," Stivers said.
Grimes said after the committee vote on the bill that it was "a good victory, but I will continue to try to strengthen it."
The bill now goes to the full Senate. Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, said she plans to offer an amendment on the Senate floor that would allow electronic voting.