Politics & Government

Top senator pushing bill to strip Grimes of her power over Kentucky’s elections board

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Alison Lundergan Grimes

A top Republican lawmaker is proposing legislation that would strip embattled Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes of her authority over the Kentucky State Board of Elections.

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said he will introduce a committee substitute Wednesday to Senate Bill 34 that would make the secretary of state a symbolic, non-voting member of the elections board, stripping her of any day-to-day authority over the group. It also would block Grimes and others in her office from accessing to the state’s voter registration database.

The proposal comes two weeks after an investigation by the Herald-Leader and ProPublica revealed that Grimes, a Democrat, has obtained unprecedented control of the elections board, allowing her to push through a no-bid contract with a political donor’s company, have her staff search the state’s voter registration system for information about hundreds of state workers and political rivals, and allegedly intimidate and retaliate against the board’s staff when they complained about her actions.

Thayer said Grimes “abused her power and went beyond the limits of her power.” His legislation, which is expected to get its first vote Wednesday in the Senate State and Local Government committee, would make sure there is a “separation of power, so to speak.”

“It should be a message to Secretary Grimes that she abused power and a message to all future secretaries of state that this is not a precedent setting situation and that the legislature doesn’t intend to let it happen again,” Thayer said.

Damon Thayer
Sen. Damon Thayer

Grimes has called the investigation sexist and claimed it was engineered by political opponents who did not want her to run for governor in 2019, despite the fact that the Herald-Leader had been reporting on her clashes with staff of the State Board of Elections since 2017. She also is under investigation by three state agencies: the Kentucky Personnel Board, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission and an independent counsel appointed by Attorney General Andy Beshear.

Thayer’s bill would allow the secretary of state to continue as Kentucky’s chief elections officer, but she would be removed as chairman of the State Board of Elections and become a non-voting, ex-officio member of the board. The executive director of the State Board of Elections would become a member of the board, though that person could only vote to break a tie when electing a board chairman.

The legislation would add two new members to the elections board, which now has six regular members and Grimes, who can break ties. Two county clerks — one Republican and one Democrat — would be appointed to the board by the governor based on suggestions from the Kentucky County Clerk’s Association, joining the existing three Democrats and three Republicans who are appointed to the board by the governor from a list of nominees provided by the state’s two largest political parties.

The executive director and the assistant executive director would continue to be appointed by the board.

“Modern elections require a closer relationship between clerks and the State Board of Elections,” said Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins, a Democrat who has been highly critical of Grimes.

Grimes is the first secretary of state to take over day-to-day oversight of the staff of the elections board, a group designed to administer elections in a non-partisan fashion.

A spokesperson for Grimes did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Thayer’s proposal. Grimes has repeatedly asserted that she has done nothing wrong and has the authority to oversee the elections staff.

Questions about Grimes’ authority have been circulating since 2017, when the then-assistant executive director of the elections board, Matt Selph, filed a whistleblower complaint against Grimes. He alleged she abused her power by improperly gathering voter information and exerting too much control over the staff of the elections board. Grimes denied the allegations and said it was a political attack, noting that Selph is a Republican.

Selph’s complaint was bolstered when current executive director Jared Dearing, a Democrat, sent a letter in August 2018 to the Attorney General’s office, Personnel Board and Executive Branch Ethics Commission, detailing similar complaints against Grimes.

State Board of Elections Executive Director Jared Dearing during an August 2018 special meeting of the State Board of Elections at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort. Dearing accused Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes of abusing her power. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Grimes has said Dearing fundamentally misunderstands her role as the state’s chief elections officer. In an August meeting, she convinced the board to pass a resolution that affirmed her day-to-day oversight of the board’s staff, a resolution that three members have since tried unsuccessfully to rescind.

Grimes has also brought her argument to the court system. Last month, she filed a request for declaratory judgment in Franklin Circuit Court, asking a judge to rule that she is legally entitled to access the state’s voter registration system. She cited the board’s resolution, along with a federal law that says any elections officer in the state may have access to the voter registration system.

Politically, Grimes may find it difficult to stop Thayer’s proposed legislation. Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion, and her actions have been publicly criticized by multiple Democratic county clerks.

“I think it’s a good thing for the state,” Blevins said. “We do need more county clerk input at the State Board of Elections. That alone is worth the bill for me.”

Daniel Desrochers has been the political reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader since 2016. He previously worked for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia.