Politics & Government

Judge rejects Grimes’ lawsuit over access to Kentucky’s voter registration system

5 reasons Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is being investigated

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is under investigation by three different agencies for these five things.
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Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is under investigation by three different agencies for these five things.

A Franklin Circuit Court Judge ruled Friday that it isn’t his place to wade into the debate over whether Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes should have access to the state’s voter registration system.

Judge Thomas Wingate dismissed Grimes’ request for a declaratory judgment that would make clear she is legally allowed to search the database that maintains Kentucky voter records, saying that only the State Board of Elections and Kentucky General Assembly have the authority to determine whether she should have access.

“The Court finds that Secretary Grimes has failed to plead an actual case or controversy to invoke this court’s jurisdiction,” Wingate wrote, pointing out that the defendants, State Board of Elections Executive Director Jared Dearing and Assistant Executive Director Jennifer Scutchfield, don’t have the authority to limit her access and have not done so.

Grimes, a Democrat, did not mention this part of the ruling in a statement her office issued late Friday that claimed victory in the case.

Grimes said she was “thankful that a court of law has settled the confusion for the State Board of Elections staff and the public.”

Wingate, though, made no ruling on the underlying controversy, but instead acknowledged that the State Board of Elections had approved a resolution in August that granted Grimes explicit authority to access the database. Republican members of the board voted in September to rescind that resolution, saying they didn’t fully understand its implications when they voted for it, but that motion failed in a vote that required a tie-breaking vote by Grimes, who is chairwoman of the board.

Grimes filed the request for declaratory judgment on January 24, shortly after being contacted by the Herald-Leader and ProPublica with a written letter containing questions about searches her staff had made in the voter database. The newspaper reported a few days later that Grimes’ staff had searched the records of hundreds of Kentuckians, including some of her political rivals and members of an ethics board that is investigating a complaint against her.

At the root of Grimes’ lawsuit was a letter Dearing, a Democrat, sent to the State Board of Elections in August 2018 that questioned whether Grimes’ staff was properly using its access to the voter registration system and whether they should have access at all.

Grimes has maintained that her staff needs access in order for her to fulfill her duties as Kentucky’s chief elections officer and the chairwoman of the elections board. She accused Dearing and Scutchfield of creating disharmony and confusion within the agency and has said questions about her use of the database were politically motivated to discourage her from running for governor this year.

Scutchfield and Dearing argued in court they didn’t have the authority to limit Grimes’ access and said there was no reason for the court to get involved. Wingate agreed.

“We are glad to put this behind us,” Scutchfield said in a written statement. “We are busy getting ready for the special election on Tuesday and the Primary Election in May. I am disappointed the court and commonwealth’s resources were wasted by this merit-less lawsuit.”

Although Wingate declined to weigh in on the controversy, the Republican-led legislature has been less hesitant.

Last month, the Senate approved Senate Bill 34, which would restrict Grimes’ staff’s access to the system and remove her from the position of chairwoman of the board of elections. A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Monday in the House Committee on Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs.

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.