Politics & Government

Judge sides with Kentucky Democratic Party in lawsuit against ‘inactive’ voter list

Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate sided with the Kentucky Democratic Party Monday in its legal challenge against the State Board of Elections for putting the names of about 175,000 voters on a separate “inactive” list.

Instead of the separate list, Wingate, in his nine-page ruling issued a few hours after holding a hearing on the lawsuit, ordered the State Board of Elections to return the names of all Kentucky voters to one master list and placing an asterisk by the names of voters whose addresses must be confirmed by poll workers.

State Democratic Party Chairman Ben Self said the party is “very pleased with Judge Wingate’s quick ruling to restore all voters back to a single master voter list and believe this decision was necessary to protect Kentucky voters and ensure the integrity of the 2019 election.”

Kentucky voters go to the polls Nov. 5 to elect a governor and other state constitutional officers.

Self said it is critical that Kentucky voters have a clear understanding of the process for voting on Nov. 5, “no matter what their party.”

Anna Whites, an attorney for the party, said the the inactive list compiled was almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

She said the judge’s granting of injunctive relief was “appropriate and protects voters of both parties.”

Jared Dearing, executive director of the state elections board, said after the ruling that “we encourage all eligible voters to come out and vote on Nov. 5.”

Dearing said during and after Monday morning’s court hearing that it was necessary to create a list of inactive voters. He said the board was under a consent decree issued in federal court requiring it to implement a mailing process to reach out to voters who have not participated in the two previous federal election cycles or have not updated their voter information in the same period.

He emphasized that voters placed on the “inactive list” were still eligible to vote in the Nov. 5 general election and would not be removed from the voter roles unless they fail to vote by November 2022 and do not confirm a new address.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief, siding with the elections board.

Attorney Michelle Rupp said the federal agency filed the brief since a federal consent decree is involved.

She was referring to a federal case involving the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, which claimed Kentucky had not properly purged voter rolls. Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit against the state in 2017, claiming the state failed to remove ineligible voters in violation of the National Voter Registration Act.

As part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, the State Board of Elections mailed out notices to about 250,000 voters, telling them they would be removed from voter registration rolls if they didn’t vote or update their address information.

Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins, who applauded the ruling, said the state is under a consent decree because it has not cleaned its voter list “in quite a while.”

The board’s inactive list contained the names of Kentucky voters that could be stricken in the future because two postcards sent to their registered address were returned as undeliverable.

The Democratic Party argued that the separate list subjected voters to burdensome and unlawful restrictions that interfere with their constitutional right to vote.

Voters on the separate list would have had to sign an oath prior to voting.

Wingate said he was granting the Democratic Party a temporary injunction because he was concerned about “the chilling effect” raised by the state elections board’s actions.

He said the voters on the list might be “apprehensive about signing” the oath card.

“The court would hope that any of the 175,000 persons on the separate list, or any other voter facing a possible voting roadblock, would demand their right to vote, and take steps to ensure their right,” wrote Wingate. “However, not every voter has the luxury of waiting for a possible lengthy period of time to jump through unnecessary hoops when the State Board of Elections’ intent can be achieved through simpler, less prejudicial means such as placing an asterisk by the names of the 175,000 individuals on the master voter list and having poll workers confirm each voter’s address.”

Wingate added that he did not believe that the state elections board was trying to disenfranchise any Kentucky voter.

He noted that Dearing said a separate list was “what was done for decades,” but that Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Girmes “interestingly claims otherwise.”

The judge also said the state elections board had not voted on the separate list process.

The judge’s order can be appealed.

Grimes, a Democrat who was removed as chairwoman of the state elections board in March by a law approved by the Republican-led legislature, said she agrees with the court ruling “in ordering the board to do what I demanded last month.”

“My hope is that all Kentucky voters will have their voice heard and vote in the upcoming election,” she said.

Grimes is challenging in court the new state law that removed the secretary of state as chair and a voting member of the elections board.

Jack Brammer is Frankfort bureau chief for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He has covered politics and government in Kentucky since May 1978. He has a Master’s in communications from the University of Kentucky and is a native of Maysville, Ky.
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