A guide to the 2023 Kentucky Primary Election

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While much of the country is focusing on who will or won’t run for president in 2024, Kentuckians are gearing up for the 2023 primary. Ours is one of a handful of states that hold off-year elections. Only three states are electing a governor this year – Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.

In addition to the governor, Kentuckians will vote on lieutenant governor (as part of the gubernatorial ticket), attorney general, secretary of state, agriculture commissioner, auditor and treasurer. The primary election is May 16, and the general election is Nov. 7.

The pros and cons of off-year elections

Why hold an election in an off year? There are pros and cons, said Ryan Salzman, an associate professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University and Bellevue City Council member. One key reason is that Kentucky laws prohibit a candidate from appearing more than once on a ballot. Running in an off year allows someone in office to run for a different office without risk.

“It enables candidates who would be up normally for re-election … to run for these races without giving up their seat,” Salzman said. “If you are a state representative and you have to run every two years, it would be impossible for you to run for governor or secretary of state if the election was held in an even election year, because then you would appear twice on the ballot.”

However, there’s a cost, as well, he said. “You can’t piggyback, basically, on other races that are going on, on other get-out-the-vote campaigns that are happening locally and nationally. When you have mayors and judge execs and state senators and the president all running, there’s a general wave and general momentum.”

In the regular election year, people canvassing for a presidential or congressional candidate could also be given materials for a state race.

“You’re able to take advantage of these electoral machines that are going,” Salzman said. “When you have an election in an odd year, there are only these few offices that are up, and that means that these campaigns have to do it all by themselves.”

On the other hand, having only a few campaigns running means they won’t get lost in the noise and dominance of federal and state legislative elections. This, too, can be a double-edged sword. Because there are fewer races, people pay less attention. Voter turnout is traditionally lower in off-year elections.

According to Fair Vote, a nonprofit that advocates electoral reform, “In recent decades, about 60% of the voting-eligible population votes during presidential election years and about 40% votes during midterm elections, with 2020 and 2018 marking the highest presidential and midterm turnout in over a century.”

In real numbers, looking at Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties in the 2019 (off-year) and 2020 presidential elections, this holds true. State Board of Elections data shows turnout for the general election in 2019 was 40.6% for Boone, 39.7 % for Campbell and 40.3% for Kenton. For the 2020 election, turnout was 59.7% for Boone, 61.2% for Campbell and 58.2% for Kenton.

Turnout for the primaries in 2019 averaged 12% for the three counties; for the presidential election primary, turnout averaged 26.5%.

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The parties and the primaries

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding around the role of states and primary elections,” said Salzman. “Because the state election system gets activated for the general election, it’s also mobilized to support the primary election. But it’s really just a support.”

The state has a vested interest in encouraging elections. It has the system and technical apparatus in place to help, he said, but the duty of selecting party nominees is the responsibility of the parties. But it’s not practical for the parties to run primary elections themselves.

In other words, the two main parties are ultimately responsible for determining whether a primary is needed and how the nominee is selected. The operation and certification of the election are in the hands of the state and county boards of election.

“Can you imagine if the Republican Party of Kentucky or the Democratic Party of Kentucky had to figure out where to put machines into every single precinct and had to recruit precinct workers and all that?” Salzman asked. “It would just be impossible for the parties to have effective nominating elections. And so the states help out in most places.”

It’s worth noting, he said, that primary elections are only one way to determine a party nominee. In some states, the major parties hold nominating conventions.

“That’s the historical way political parties would do this – they would all gather into a convention, and they would nominate their candidate,” Salzman said. “It was very much an elite-driven process. But in the mid-20th century, we tried to democratize that part of the process.

“You ended up with all of these states initiating primary elections that look a lot like general elections, although they do vary widely,” he said.

A petri dish for democracy

Different states have different methods and rules for selecting party nominees. Some are open or semi-open primaries, in which voters do not have to declare a party affiliation ahead of time or can do so the day of the election. Others, like Kentucky, hold a closed primary, in which voters must declare their party affiliation when they register. Kentucky voters may vote only in the primary of their party affiliation. Registered independents can’t vote in primaries.

The rules in Kentucky are strict. If voters wish to switch party affiliations, they must do so by the end of December in the year prior to the primary election.

There’s also a wide variety of ways party nominees can be chosen in different states. They can be selected through rank-choice voting, in which voters rank candidates from most to least preferred. A top-two primary system puts all candidates together, and the two top vote-getters are the nominees regardless of party affiliation.

“We like to say that the United States is a petri dish for democracy,” Salzman said. “Different states use different processes. … The only thing that remains consistent is that the general election is held on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Outside of that, it’s all over the place.”

The two major parties are in control when it comes to primaries in most states, making it difficult, if not impossible, for third parties to make it onto a primary ballot. The threshold to qualify can be high. In Kentucky, only the two main parties are officially recognized and appear on the primary ballot.

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Who’s in charge?

“The state board of elections and the secretary of state, at the direction of the General Assembly, set the policies and procedures for how statewide elections are conducted,” said Shane Noem, chairman of the Kenton County Republican Party. “And that’s the framework for which all Kentucky elections operate. Then the county clerks are responsible for actually executing the election.

“Voting locations and some processes can vary from county to county, but they are governed by state law in Kentucky,” he said.

Counties must submit an election plan to the state board of elections for approval. The county plan can be rejected for a number of reasons, Noem said. For example, there might be too many or too few locations, or the locations might not be convenient.

“One of the big things is the availability of space,” he said. “We’re being increasingly limited. It used to be easy to find a phone booth and cycle 100 or a couple hundred people through in a day. But in suburban areas and with the growth we see in our region, we need bigger locations.”

When that is coupled with staffing and workforce challenges, along with the plethora of rules, it gets more complicated.

“The Voting Rights Act (and) the Disability Rights Act dictate what kind of spaces you can use,” Noem said. “When you hear counties consolidating, it’s rarely ever, ‘We want less locations.’ It’s more, ‘We don’t have the manpower, and there aren’t the locations that meet the rules that govern this.’ ”

How we vote

The question of which voting machines and paper ballots are used falls to the county board of elections, with approval by the state.

Counties are in charge of their own election equipment, and they are required by law to use a public bidding, request-for-proposal process, Noem said.

“Poorer counties will purchase more prosperous counties’ old equipment to save money,” he said. “All the machines used in Kentucky are safe, secure and are not connected to the internet.”

Beyond equipment and location, administration of the election is another critical factor. That’s where poll workers, also known as precinct election officers, come in. Qualified registered voters, these workers are hired, trained and paid by each county. They must be at least 18 and cannot be candidates or relatives of a candidate on the ballot in that precinct.

Poll workers are in high demand. Elections run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on election day, and poll workers are required to be on-site all day. To learn more about becoming a poll worker, visit your county’s website or go to elect.ky.gov and click on the Voters tab.

Kentucky law also provides for “poll challengers” to be present at the polls.

“It allows for political parties or candidates to go into the polls and watch and challenge something if they see something off,” Noem said. “In my opinion, it’s kind of redundant with poll workers, because poll workers are also designated by political parties to go work in the polls. If they see something, they have even more authority.”

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Challengers, on the other hand, are very limited, he said. “You can’t touch a book, you can’t talk to anybody. You can observe and then file a report with the county clerk. Really, what those positions are used for is getting estimates on how many people have voted.”

Voting options

During the pandemic, states got creative about providing options and workarounds for voters. For the most part, elections have returned to pre-pandemic voting options, but some changes have become permanent.

“What has changed due to the pandemic is early voting,” Salzman said. “We had instituted multiple weeks for early voting during the 2020 election, but then the Legislature adopted standing early voting days in the aftermath of the pandemic. It’s three days – Thursday, Friday and Saturday – prior to the election.”

“No-excuse absentee” status has gone away, but a person can request an excused absentee ballot for a number of reasons, including being disabled, in the military, living overseas, a college student living on campus and many more situations. While the time to request an absentee ballot for the primary has passed, voters can visit govote.ky.gov or contact their county clerk’s office to find out if they are eligible to vote absentee.

Who can vote?

In Kentucky, most citizens over the age of 18 can vote. Those who turn 18 by the general election may vote in the primary. A photo ID is required.

Laws have changed to restore the right to vote to people who have been incarcerated for certain crimes. In the past, the only option to regain the right was to petition the governor.

“It was a person-by-person project,” said Jason Worms, a volunteer with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), a statewide organization devoted to promoting voting and democracy.

“In 2019, Gov. Beshear signed an executive order that automatically restored voting rights for people who had certain criminal records,” he said. “If they had finished their sentences, they automatically had their rights restored. They did not have to petition the government.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, 175,000 people who have served their time for felony convictions are eligible to vote.

“One of KFTC’s biggest pillars is grassroots power,” said Worms. “From KFTC’s perspective, when you have thousands of Kentuckians who do not have the right to vote because they have a felony in their background, that is not grassroots power, that’s suppressing grassroots power.”

To learn more, visit [email protected]. A call to your county clerk’s office can tell you if your rights have been restored.

Getting to the polls and more information

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth provides rides to the polls on election day. To set up a ride or to volunteer to drive people to the polls, visit kftc.org/rides to sign up.

For more information on the upcoming primary and general elections, visit govoteky.com. See also the League of Women Voters website at Vote411.org or the KFTC Voter Guide at kentuckyelection.org.

To find out where to vote, check the website of your county clerk’s office. You will need your precinct number, which the office can help you find.

For additional questions, call the Kentucky State Board of Elections at 502-573-7100.

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