Politics & Government

Secretary of state candidates debate photo ID plan, felon voting rights

Alison Lundergan Grimes
Alison Lundergan Grimes

LOUISVILLE — Republican Bill Johnson supported requiring people to present photo identification before voting, while Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes denounced that as a "barrier to the ballot box" as the candidates for Kentucky secretary of state met in a televised debate Monday night.

The rivals also differed on whether Kentucky's Constitution should be amended to provide automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who have served their sentences. Johnson opposes such a measure. Grimes voiced her personal support but said it was up to state lawmakers to decide whether to put such a measure on the ballot.

The candidates seeking to become Kentucky's chief elections officer squared off in a lively hourlong debate on Kentucky Educational Television in Lexington. They are vying to become Kentucky's third secretary of state within a year.

The secretary of state oversees elections for public offices and the incorporation of businesses in Kentucky.

The candidates staked out contrasting views on whether to require voters to present photo IDs before gaining access to the ballot box.

"The security it provides is just common sense," Johnson said. "I don't think it's too burdensome to protect the most important right we have from fraud by requiring a picture ID."

Johnson said it wouldn't be difficult to set up a program to issue photo IDs for people who don't have driver's licenses.

"To have somebody go in and get a picture ID that's non-driver's license is just the cost of a piece of plastic," he said.

Grimes countered that Kentucky already is among 29 states requiring voters to produce an ID such as a Social Security card or driver's license, or to be known by precinct officers.

Strengthening the requirement to a photo ID would require action by state lawmakers, which Grimes said isn't needed.

"We do not have a problem of voter impersonation which would require us to essentially build another barrier to the ballot box," she said.

Denouncing it in personal terms, Grimes said a photo ID law would "require my 91-year-old grandmother to go get a government-issued ID to vote at the precinct she's been voting at for the last 40 years."

Grimes is a Lexington lawyer and the daughter of former state Democratic Party chairman Jerry Lundergan. Johnson is a former Navy officer and BP executive.

Meanwhile, Johnson denounced efforts to change the state Constitution to restore voting rights for felons who served their sentences.

State Rep. Jesse Crenshaw of Lexington has been pushing the measure for years in the General Assembly without success.

"This notion that they have repaid their debt to society is ridiculous," Johnson said. "If you have murdered somebody, you never repay your debt to that victim's family. If you've raped somebody, you never repay the debt to that victim."

Grimes noted that the secretary of state doesn't have the authority to allow a felon to vote again. Felons can have their right to vote restored in Kentucky only by petitioning the governor and getting his approval.

"Personally, I believe that once an individual has paid their debt to society — and I do believe that's possible — they should be able to participate in the political discussion of our time," Grimes said.

The two candidates are seeking to succeed Elaine Walker, who was appointed secretary of state earlier this year after Republican Trey Grayson resigned in the midst of his second term to become director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics.