Politics & Government

Senate Democrats don’t defend Grimes, but voice concern about bill to limit her power

Democratic lawmakers did not rush to defend Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes Wednesday as a Senate committee approved a bill that would limit the influence of Grimes and future secretaries of state over the day-to-day operations of the State Board of Elections.

Grimes has called allegations that she overstepped her authority as Kentucky’s chief elections officer and the chairwoman of the State Board of Elections sexist and a hit-job orchestrated to end her political career, but three Democrats on the legislative panel hardly raised a peep. One of them, Denise Harper-Angel of Louisville, voted for the bill.

Senate Bill 34, which would remove the secretary of state as chairperson of the State Board of Elections and eliminate her right to access the state’s voter registration database, passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee 8-2, with Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, and Sen. Johnny Ray Turner, D-Prestonsburg, voting against the bill.

In explaining his vote, McGarvey went out of his way to say that his opposition to the bill wasn’t political or in defense of Grimes, but reflects his concern that the bill goes too far.

“I understand why these complaints are here,” McGarvey said. “We all know why they’re here. But is the reaction to strip an elected official, who’s job is to oversee elections, when nationally we are strengthening secretaries of state?”

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, flanked by Kentucky County Clerks Association president Gabrielle Summe and Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins, said the bill was necessary to ensure a clear separation of powers between the Office of the Secretary of State and the State Board of Elections.

Thayer, R-Georgetown, said he filed the bill because he has heard about Grimes’ actions since 2017 and cited a three-part investigation published two weeks ago by the Herald-Leader and ProPublica that detailed Grimes’ unprecedented power over the State Board of Elections. The publications found that Grimes’ new-found power allowed her to push through a no-bid contract with a political donor’s company, have 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.

“The changes to the statutes noted here today are meant to ensure that no one partisan figure can control the commonwealth’s election apparatus,” Thayer said, saying the bill was necessary to protect the integrity of Kentucky’s elections.

Damon Thayer AP

Grimes office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but her office released a statement Wednesday calling for her staff, the staff of the State Board of Elections and all 120 county clerks to release their searches of the state’s voter registration system.

“These searches will reflect that my staff have always acted appropriately pursuant to my role as Kentucky’s Secretary of State and Chief Election Official,” Grimes said.

She has denied any wrongdoing and contends state and federal law give her the right to access the voter registration system and directly oversee the staff of the elections board.

McGarvey was wary of the bill, saying he wasn’t sure he wanted to shift major responsibilities for administering elections from the secretary of state to a group of appointed bureaucrats. Regardless of Grimes actions, he isn’t convinced it is best to put people in power who aren’t accountable to voters, McGarvey said.

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.

“We have an independent attorney general, we have an independent auditor, we have an independent secretary of state and they all conduct very important functions,” McGarvey said. “And I would say the same thing if Mike Harmon, as the auditor for example, inappropriately used his office. That doesn’t mean we should get rid of an independent auditor.”

Former Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican, said he supports the bill. Though it would remove power from the secretary of state, he said the bill is consistent with the intent of the legislature when it originally created the State Board of Elections.

“I think it’s the 2019 version of what the legislature did a long time ago,” Grayson said. “And we saw that it probably needs some additional safeguards.”

Grayson said the bill wouldn’t completely eliminate the secretary of state’s power over elections. The secretary of state would remain the state’s chief elections official, requiring that person to coordinate elections under the National Voting Rights Act.

“While this dials back the secretary’s role with the State Board of Elections, the secretary is still intimately involved with elections, is still the chief elections official, will still be on the elections committee at the National Association of Secretaries of State,” Grayson said. “...You never did have the complete power to run elections. That’s never how we set it up in Kentucky.”

McGarvey said he was also concerned about putting county clerks on the board since it helps oversee county clerks.

Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, passed on a vote for HB 487 during the final day of Kentucky’s 2018 General Assembly at the Capitol in Frankfort. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Summe, the Kenton County Clerk, said having clerks on the board would give them a bigger voice in creating policies they must implement. She said the bill would bring stability to the elections system and create a practical separation of powers.

“They haven’t had a board meeting in four months,” Summe said. “And then there’s stuff on (the agenda) and then all of a sudden it’s either taken off or the meeting’s canceled so we can’t even get on the agenda to say we want to help you, educate you on some of the decisions you’re making that not only affect us but affect our communities.”

No representative from Grimes office was present to speak against the bill and discussion of the bill was over in less than 15 minutes.

As Thayer returned to his seat, he had words for the three Democratic Senators in the committee.

“Unbelievable,” he said. “I can’t believe you guys voted no. Thank you Denise (Harper-Angel).”

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.