The Kentucky legislature signed off on a bill Thursday that will strip Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes of her power over the State Board of Elections and make it a misdemeanor for anyone to misuse the state’s voter registration system.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, tacked language onto an existing House bill that removes Grimes as chairwoman of the elections board and expands its membership from six voting members to eight, including two former county clerks. The secretary of state and the executive director of the State Board of elections will be non-voting members, although the executive director could break a tie to determine the chairperson of the board.
The bill met strong resistance from Democrats, who called it a “power grab” and a “vengeful” piece of legislation intended to attack Grimes, who is under investigation by three state agencies. Grimes is term-limited and is not running for any office in 2019.
“He may have issues with our current Secretary of State and I understand that,” Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, said of Thayer. “But she’ll be gone in November.”
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The bill was backed by the Kentucky County Clerks Association. Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins, a Democrat, said he looks forward to clerks having a say on the board.
“This is not perfect legislation,” Blevins said. “But it addresses a pressing issue. There is now hope that the ship can be righted at the State Board of Elections.”
In a statement after the bill passed, Grimes said the bill will put Kentucky elections at risk, create chaos and give the governor power over the board. She said she will “carefully review the legislation and take any legal action necessary.”
“The Republican majority upended the State Board of Elections tonight without even the basic understanding of how it functions or what the proposed legislation does,” Grimes said. “That was evident when majority members didn’t even know how many members currently sit on the board or how a tie vote could not be broken under Thayer’s bill.”
A series of articles by the Lexington Herald-Leader and ProPublica in January showed that Grimes has gained unprecedented authority over the State Board of Elections, resulting in her ability to push through a no-bid contract with a company owned by a political donor and delay action on a consent decree mandating that she clean the state’s voter rolls.
When defending that authority, Grimes has often referenced a resolution passed by the State Board of the Elections in August that granted her day-to-day oversight over staff of the elections board. Two members later attempted to rescind the resolution but were voted down on a party-line vote with Grimes as the tie-breaking vote.
Mary Sue Helm, the elections director in Grimes’ office, spoke against the bill in committee, saying it would provide less oversight over Kentucky’s elections process.
Once that bill was shot down in committee, Thayer added the language to House Bill 114. That bill passed a Senate committee, cleared the Senate and then was sent to the House for a final vote.
Several members decried the process that brought the bill to the House floor for a vote. Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg, christened the bill the “big baby bully bill” and Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, filed a floor amendment in an attempt to kill the bill.
“We’ve been put in a position where they’re just thumbing their nose at the committee process in the House,” Hoover said.
Hoover’s amendment was narrowly defeated.
The bill contained an emergency measure, which means the board will immediately be restructured if Gov. Matt Bevin doesn’t veto the bill.
Many Democrats said the bill injects partisanship into the elections board.
“I think this is really just a way to play politics,” said Rep. Cherlynn Stevenson, D-Lexington. “And it is trying to weaken our elections system.’
The voting members would consist of four Republicans and four Democrats and any tied votes would not count.