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Advocacy group sues Kentucky election officials over 2021 law

A woman casts her ballot in the 2024 primary election at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville on the first day of early voting on May 16, 2024.
Justin Hicks
/
KPR
A woman casts her ballot in the 2024 primary election at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville on the first day of early voting on May 16, 2024.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth is suing the Kentucky Secretary of the State and State Board of Elections over a 2021 election law, which the group says violates federal law.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a progressive grassroots organization, argued in court filings that a portion of a 2021 election law violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

The 3-year-old omnibus elections bill was in part designed to clean up the state’s voter rolls by purging voters from state records who are no longer able or eligible to vote for various reasons — like moving out of state or being convicted of a felony. A large number of people have also been removed from voter rolls when the state learned they were deceased — more than 3,000 former voters last month.

One section of the law requires that the State Board of Election remove a person’s registration if the office receives notice from a local or state jurisdiction that that person registered to vote outside of Kentucky. As long as the registration books aren’t already closed for an election, the person’s name has to be taken off the list within five days, Kentucky law says.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth alleges that is a violation of federal laws, which require the state to directly reach out to voters before removing them from the rolls and giving them adequate time to respond before deleting their name.

“The statute allows for removal, just based on information from out of state — not even just allows for, but requires removal within five days,” said Michelle Kanter Cohen, a lawyer with the Fair Elections Center representing Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. “That is certainly not in compliance with the requirement of the notice and waiting period.”

Kanter Cohen said that, from a policy perspective, the notice and waiting period are important because they reduce errors. For example, if two people with the same name and similar information register to vote in different states, that could feasibly trigger Kentucky’s law and lead to a speedy removal of a person who still lives in and is registered to cover in Kentucky, Kanter Cohen said.

Under federal law, according to Kanter Cohen, a registered voter must confirm they changed their residence in writing or fail to respond to a notice and then not vote during the next two federal election cycles after receiving the notice, typically four years.

According to the lawsuit, a group which included Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Kentucky chapter of the NAACP reached out to Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams in August 2023, telling him they believe the law to be out of sync with federal rules. They also requested records for how many people had been removed from the voter rolls under that section, but Kanter Cohen said they received no response.

In a statement, Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams called Kentucky’s elections a “national success story.”

“Now that a presidential election is underway, a fringe left-wing activist group is trying to undo that law and sow chaos and doubt in our elections,” Adams said. “We believe voters should vote in only one state, and we expect to prevail in court.”

Adams said that 4,362 registrations were removed from Kentucky’s voter rolls last month. More than 12% of those were de-registered for moving out of state, although it's unclear how many of that subset were removed based on the specific rule in question.

Kanter Cohen also pointed to a similar Indiana statute that was blocked by a federal appellate court in 2021 for similar reasons. The Indiana law also canceled a person’s voter registration without direct contact or notice based on out-of-state registration records.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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