Covington leaders to board of elections: Cease consolidation of voting locations

Mark Payne
Mark Payne
Mark Payne is the government and politics reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected].

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On election day 2022, reports across Kenton County showed that the lines in voting locations were hundreds of people long and wait times were more than an hour. 

“3:30 p.m.,” wrote Greg Corwin on Twitter. “I’m at St. Barbara’s, where there are 10-12 precincts. The line is bonkers. Maybe 500 ppl (people) in line. It’s moving but slowly.” 

In November, Erica Schuetter told LINK nky that the Villa Hills her wait time was much longer than she expected.

“River Ridge poll in Villa Hills has boasted 1+ hour waits all day,” she said. “I’m not sure how many poll workers are usually checking in voters, but I suspect it’s more than the four that are here today. I voted at 4:15 after waiting for one hour and 15 min. The line was longer when I left at 4:30 than when I arrived at 3 p.m.” 

Several factors led to issues at the polls, city leaders said: Lack of poll workers and compliance problems with accessibility requirements were two of them. The most significant one, leaders said, was the consolidation of voting locations by more than 50%.

 Covington’s mayor and its five commissioners don’t want the county to further consolidate its voting locations — something the city says caused widespread issues with voting in the 2022 general election. 

In a Jan. 25 letter to both the state and Kenton County Board of Elections, the legislative group requests that the county board of elections cease consolidating the number of voting locations in the city, which decreased from 14 in previous years to five in 2022. 

“Believing voting to be a sacred right that must be protected, we ask that the Kenton Board AND the State Board of Elections move toward better voter accessibility and provide at least one voting location in each precinct,” the letter reads. 

While the mayor and commissioners are concerned with the city consolidation, they also say it’s a county-wide issue that saw the number of voting locations throughout Kenton County reduced from 47 to 24. 

Independence Mayor Chris Reinersman said there were significant crowds throughout his city, and people were waiting between two and three hours in some locations.

“There certainly can be some lines, but this is the worst I recall seeing,” Reinersman said, noting the challenges it takes to run elections, such as attracting poll workers and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires accessibility for those with disabilities in public areas like voting locations.

But the main issue in this last election comes from the consolidation of voting locations, Reinersman said. 

Further, the Covington Board of Commission said the plan for 2022, and 2023 so far, lacks transparency. 

“That consolidation happened without meaningful public input, lacked insufficient notice and publication, and has yet to be justified with any serious explanation,” the letter reads. 

2020 and changes to voting during the pandemic

During the 2020 elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic, voting drastically changed in the country, state, and Northern Kentucky. 

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“In 2020, they changed so many of the laws, and one of the major things that came out of that was early voting,” said Kenton County Clerk and Chair of the county Board of Elections Gabrielle Summe. “And in early voting, we had one location for the primary, and then we had two major locations for the general, and it was so heavily used, regardless of party affiliation.”

She also said many locations, such as nursing homes and schools, were shut down or under some type of COVID-19 order, so they couldn’t use those locations. 

With some parts of the 2020 election working well, The Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation in 2021 that, among other things, provided six days of absentee voting and three days of early voting for the 2022 election. 

The impression of the Board of Elections — composed of Democrat Sarah Rodgers, Republican Scott Kimmich, Kenton County Sheriff Chuck Korzenborn, and Chair Summe — was that the early voting days would do a lot of the heavy lifting and they could reduce voting locations. 

In 2021, there was no election, so they couldn’t test the model again, so 2022 was the first in which the county would try this new version of voting. The 2020 model worked in the 2022 primary but didn’t fare so well in the general election, despite a record-low voter turnout of 36% across the state. 

“The Kenton County Board of Elections understands everyone’s frustrations with the lines on Election Day,” Summe wrote in an email on Nov. 10, 2022. “As a board, we will be reviewing and analyzing all the feedback provided by voters, city officials, etc.” 

In 2022, the county Board of Elections decided to keep the number of voting locations at 24. 

“The reason we had 24 was because I wanted to make sure that I accommodated all my cities so that people were able to go to locations within their cities,” Summe said, noting that she makes those decisions with the board. 

When Summe and the Board of Elections consider locations, they take into account parking, access from bus lines, ADA accessibility, etc., she said.

Another thing that started in 2020 and stayed in 2022 was that voters could vote anywhere in the county — not just the voting facility in their precinct. 

When voters showed up at a location, they could enter their information, and the poll worker could print a ballot specific to that voter. For example, they could vote at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center downtown if they lived in Villa Hills. 

In 2020, the Northern Kentucky Convention Center was a “godsend,” according to Summe, but it didn’t turn out to be the voting mecca they expected in 2022. 

“I had 10,000 potential people that could have walked through the doors at the convention center, but only 1,765 people did,” Summe said, noting that the convention center has decided it doesn’t want to be a voting location in 2023. 

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Summe also attributed long lines to the length of the ballot. Constitutional Amendment 1, which would have allowed the legislature to call itself back into session, clocked in at over 700 words. 

“You had a lot of people who sat down and started researching the amendment and different things like that,” Summe said. “And so some people weren’t leaving the facility for a half an hour to 45 minutes.” 

Despite the frustrations, Summe said she and the board are researching and making changes in 2023. They are currently looking for a place to replace the convention center, and they’ll likely add more voting locations. 

“We’re looking at additional locations in Covington not only for early voting, because that was one of my early voting locations, and then adding additions in relation to what they’re [the board] seeing, not just in Covington, but some of the other cities,” Summe said, noting she couldn’t share full details until the plan is approved by the county board and then submitted to the State Board of Elections for full approval. 

Kenton County reaches settlement with U.S. Attorney’s Office over polling location accessibility

In a Jan. 23 email, Summe said there were problems with ADA accessibility at the polling locations for the 2022 primary held in May. However, the reduction in polling locations occurred before this date. 

The act requires that local and state governments can’t select polling places inaccessible to individuals with disabilities during elections, and they must provide accommodations to make sure voters have equal opportunity to vote. 

“The majority of the locations did not comply with the current ADA standards, and therefore the Fiscal Court has hired a company that will be assessing each location so that we can remediate any non-compliant issues at each location,” Summe wrote in a Jan. 23, 2023 email. 

The team is scheduled to visit the locations over the ensuing weeks, “taking pictures and measuring the slopes of the parking lots and entrances into the facility,” Summe wrote. 

The next day, Summe wrote an email with the headline “2023 Polling Locations” that she said was meant to keep the recipients up to date about the ADA assessment. 

“The locations review for ADA compliance will help us prepare for elections and to make any adjustments necessary for individuals with handicap accessibility needs,” Summe writes. “The County Board of Elections and the Fiscal Court are not asking anyone or any location to change anything about their facility.” 

In a Jan. 26 press release, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it had reached a settlement with Kenton County officials to ensure polling place accessibility. 

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office identified architectural barriers at numerous polling places after it reviewed the Kenton County Board’s voting program for compliance with the ADA,” the release says. “These barriers included inaccessible parking, ramps that were too steep, walkways that had steep cross slopes or had gaps and bumps in the path of travel, and voting machines that could not be accessed by voters with mobility disabilities. The Office also identified instances where the Kenton County Board did not provide voters with disabilities privacy and independence while voting.” 

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The settlement is part of the department’s ADA Voting Initiative, and it will force Kenton County to solve the ADA issues in its voting program. 

“The Board will employ measures such as portable ramps, signage, and propped-open doors to ensure that its selected polling places are accessible to voters with disabilities,” the release reads. “In addition, the Board will train its poll workers and other elections staff on the requirements of the ADA and how to use temporary measures to ensure each polling place is accessible during elections. The Board will also survey polling locations for accessibility and maintain the accessibility of each polling place it uses on election days. When selecting future polling places, the Board will select locations that will be accessible during elections.” 

What happens now? 

The decision to lower the number of precincts is made at the county level. Once those plans — due Feb. 15 for 2023 — are finalized, they are sent to the state board of elections, where the secretary of state chairs the board but isn’t a voting member. 

“As the statute is currently written, the secretary of state has no legal authority over approving voting locations,” said Michon Lindstrom, the communications director for Secretary of State Michael Adams.

The state board approved Kenton County’s plans for the 2022 general election. 

“We know that was an issue,” Lindstrom said. “Right now, it’s just the state board that approved it, and while you know, he’s on the board, he’s a non-voting member.” 

Adams recently testified to the Kentucky legislature that he wants more say in the number of voting locations in counties. 

“In order to reduce lines, we need more voting locations, not more voting days,” Adams wrote in an op-ed. “There are a few ways to accomplish this. One would be to do what was done in 2020 via emergency powers granted by the Legislature: granting counties the flexibility to consolidate voting locations, but only with approval of the governor and secretary of state. It’s important that someone who is accountable to voters be able to review and approve a local election plan that reduces voting locations.”

Summe said the county doesn’t have enough equipment to ramp up to 50 locations as they did before 2020, but “we’re looking to maybe phase up to that; of course, we have to do our review.” The Board of Elections requested 200 more e-poll books, which contain an electronic list of voters and allow poll workers to check in voters. 

“We’re gonna work towards more,” Summe said. “We haven’t even discussed what we think would be a good number.” 

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