Politics & Government

The Kentucky State Board of Elections is in chaos as Election Day nears. Here’s why.

It’s 49 days until Election Day and the Kentucky State Board of Elections is mired in chaos.

At issue is a power struggle between the staff of the State Board of Elections and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes over control of Kentucky’s election system.

Grimes, a Democrat, argues that her role as chairwoman of the board of elections requires her staff to have access to Kentucky’s voter registration database and oversight of the day-to-day operations of the State Board of Elections.

Jared Dearing, executive director of the State Board of Elections, filed a complaint last month with the board, the executive branch ethics commission and the state personnel board, alleging Grimes had overstepped her authority by eliminating the independence of the board’s staff, asking her staffers to access the voter database, and creating a hostile work environment.

That power struggle came to a head Tuesday, as Dearing and Grimes aired their complaints in a public forum before the board went into a closed session to discuss cyber-security and personnel matters. When the board came back into public session about three hours later, Dearing still had a job and two members were assigned to a cyber-security task force.

There are two central issues at play: Grimes’ day-to-day oversight of the State Board of Elections staff and her staff’s access to the voter registration database.

The database contains voters’ names and addresses, county code, precinct code, gender, party affiliation, zip code, date of birth, date of registration, and five-year voting history.

There are a couple of ways people can access that system. The public has the ability to search for a person’s party affiliation and voting precinct if they can supply a first name, last name and date of birth. A political party or candidate can also pay for a snapshot of the voter registration system at a given time.

Live access to the database is limited. The staff for all 120 county clerks, the state board of elections staff and (now) Grimes’ staff have access to the complete database. Up until October 2017, Grimes’ staff also had the ability to amend the voter registration database. That access was shifted to “read-only” when discovered by fired former assistant executive director Matt Selph.

Dearing, and some county clerks, say there is no legitimate reason for Grimes to have access to the database. Dearing also has alleged to the Kentucky Personnel Board that Grimes’ senior adviser, Lindsay Thurston, used the voter registration system to determine the party affiliations and voting history of job candidates applying for merit jobs at the State Board of Elections.

Grimes has said the searches were conducted as part of a legitimate background check and alleged that Dearing threatened the security of Kentucky’s election system by bringing his complaint to the Kentucky Personnel Board.

The Personnel Board voted last Friday to investigate whether Grimes’ staff violated any state hiring laws by looking up the voting history of the potential hires.

Don Blevins, the Fayette County Clerk, said county clerks have access to the database so they can register voters and run elections. He said the secretary of state has no statutory duties related to voter registration.

“There’s absolutely no reason for the secretary of state’s office to have direct access to that system, be it read-only or not,” said Blevins, a Democrat. “There needs to be an arms length between the secretary of state and the State Board of Elections.”

Grimes argues that access to the voter registration database is essential to perform her duties. No previous secretary of state has had direct access to the voter registration database, but Grimes contends upgrades in election technology require her staff to have access for election security purposes. Blevins and Dearing dispute this contention.

During an emergency meeting of the State Board of Elections after Dearing’s complaint, four members of the board, including two Republicans, approved a resolution that Grimes has said affirms her staff’s ability to access the voter registration database.

The resolution said Grimes needs access to the voter registration system “up to, on, and after each election and throughout the regular course of business, to coordinate election inquiries and field complaints.”

The two Republican members who voted for the resolution on August 28 voted to rescind the resolution Tuesday, but the vote ultimately failed along partisan lines, with Grimes as the deciding vote.

“I feel like that resolution centralized things more than they should be,” said Josh Branscum, a Republican member of the board. “And that worried me.”

There also is a question about how much authority Grimes should have over the staff of the State Board of Elections.

Dearing, a Democrat, is the second member of the board’s staff to allege Grimes had overstepped her authority in less than a year. Both times, Grimes has claimed party politics are at play.

Dearing contends the State Board of Elections is an independent agency and that its staff should answer to the board as a whole, not Grimes. Grimes contends the staff should answer to her as the chairwoman of the board and chief elections officer in the state.

“We have functionally been terminated,” Dearing said Tuesday, referring to himself and assistant executive director Jennifer Scutchfield, a Republican.

In another move that concerned Blevins, the State Board of Elections voted Tuesday to give Grimes and other members snapshots of the statewide voter database, which they said is needed to provide oversight of the system.

Blevins said the decision will give Grimes and other members of the board free access to information that other politicians must purchase for thousands of dollars. The vote was split along party lines.

“This is a thinly veiled attempt to legitimize her inappropriate actions over the last few years,” Blevins said.

Grimes said her office has been accessing that data throughout her tenure from her information technology staff, not obtaining it from the board of elections.