Jennifer Decker has strong conservative credentials. A first-term Republican state legislator in Kentucky who used to work for Senator Rand Paul, she represents a county that voted for Donald Trump last year by nearly 30 percentage points.
Yet at a time when many of his Republican counterparts across the country are rushing to pass tough new voting restrictions, fueled in part by Trump's falsehoods about the 2020 election, the first major bill in the US. Decker swerved.
The objective of it was to facilitate the vote of the people in the state.
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Kentucky on Wednesday became the only state in the country with a Republican-controlled legislature that expanded voting rights after a bitter presidential election that tested the country's democratic institutions and raised access to ballots as an issue. animated for both parties.
At a signing ceremony Wednesday, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, praised the bill as a bipartisan effort that countered the push from other Republican legislatures to put up barriers to voting.
"When much of the country has enacted more restrictive laws, Kentucky legislators, Kentucky leaders were able to come together to defend democracy and expand the opportunity for people to vote," Beshear said.
The reasons Kentucky Republicans have diverged on voting rights range from politics to logistics. For one thing, they had an easier sell: With radical new rules that allow elections to be held safely during the coronavirus pandemic, Republicans in Kentucky had one of their best cycles in years, with Sen. Mitch McConnell. and Trump easily winning in the state. .
And expanding voting access in Kentucky was a low hurdle to clear; The state had some of the strictest voting laws in the country prior to 2020, without a single early voting day and strict limits on absentee voting.
The momentum in Kentucky and other states, including Democratic-controlled Virginia, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii and Massachusetts, reflects a bizarre outcome of the pandemic: The most challenging election in nearly a century sparked expansive changes across the country to ease access. to the polls.
"We did things a little bit differently because of COVID, and I thought some of that might help us move forward," Decker said in an interview. “And the electoral reform should not be partisan. Party majorities can change at any time. "
Both Republicans and Democrats in Kentucky have overwhelmingly supported and celebrated the bill, presenting it as a welcome bipartisan achievement. But advocates of the right to vote have been more silent, pointing to the relatively limited scope of the legislation and its mix of measures, such as the introduction of a short early voting period, as well as new restrictions announced under the banner of electoral security. . They caution that the proposal represents a modest improvement in a state long hostile to voting rights, a fact that even conservatives have recognized.
"Kentucky actually had probably, up to this point, the most restrictive voting laws in the country," said Michael Adams, the Republican secretary of state, who was the main force behind the bill. "And that is what we are trying to change."
In fact, even with its recently expanded voting access, Kentucky's voting rules remain comparatively stricter than Georgia, which recently reformed its electoral system with new restrictions on voting. Even under Georgia's new law, for example, the state still has unexcused absentee voting and a much earlier voting period than Kentucky.
Kentucky law establishes three days for early voting in the state; introduces voting centers that would allow more in-person voting options; create an online portal to register and request ballots; and allows voters to troubleshoot absentee ballots, a process known as curation.
Voting rights experts note that three days of early voting is still a short window compared to other states that offer the process, and that the law does not have a provision for voting absentee without excuse. It also includes restrictions such as a ban on ballot collection, a practice in which one person collects and delivers the ballots of multiple voters.
Almost all of the nation's current efforts to expand voting access are taking place in states with Democratic-led legislatures, and they go much further in expanding access to ballots than Kentucky law.
Connecticut is trying to make unexcused absentee voting permanent after the method worked successfully in last year's election, and Delaware is working on a constitutional amendment to add unexcused absentee voting. Hawaii is moving toward the introduction of automatic voter registration. And Massachusetts is seeking a number of changes, including adding same-day voter registration and extending early voting.
"The 2020 elections help them to have confidence that they can act quickly to expand access and not have to go slow," Sylvia Albert, director of the voting rights group Common Cause, said of these states.
He said that Kentucky did not fall into the category of true expansion, because its new law will provide fewer options than the emergency orders of 2020. “This could be a political calculation done by Democrats in the state, so that Republicans do not go even further in the suppression of the vote as other states have done ”, he said. "But as a voter access bill for elections, it is not successful.
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