How a fight over elections is playing out in Kenton County

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

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A battle over how elections are conducted is playing out in Kenton County, with the Democratic party seeking to remove its representative from the county board of elections.

But the board, which is mostly Republican, doesn’t want that to happen as they say they have a good working relationship with Sarah Rogers, the Democratic representative to the Kenton County Board of Elections.

The board also says they didn’t want to destabilize an election by removing a board member before a primary.

Democrats argue that the county board of elections lacks transparency and isn’t inclusive when making decision around elections; they also say they don’t have a working relationship with their own representative when it comes to understanding how key decisions are made.

At a March 8 meeting, the Kenton County Democrats voted 17-0 to remove Rogers as their board of elections representative — but county elections officials disagree with the attempted removal.

The county board is composed of Republican Gabrielle Summe, the county clerk; Scott Kimmich, the Republican party representative; Rogers; and Republican Chuck Korzenborn, the Kenton County sheriff.

In response to the March vote from the Kenton Democrats, Summe, Kimmich, and Korzenborn wrote letters in support of Rogers to the state board of elections — the organization that holds the ultimate power over whether or not to remove a member from a county board of elections.

At the April state board of elections meeting, Republican Secretary of State and Chair of the state BOE Michael Adams said that he’s seen both Republican and Democratic county parties request the removal of county board of elections members. 

Further, he said that there’s increasing partisanship driving these requests, pointing to the letters sent from the Kenton County Board of Elections and said that those letters show there’s confidence in the ability of the current county board of elections members. 

“These individuals are being put on trial for not being partisan enough, and I think it’s inappropriate,” Adams said. “I thought it was inappropriate when we got that request from another county party of the other party last year.” 

Adams was referring to a case in 2022 when the Boone County Republican Party wanted to remove Emily Shelton — the former Republican representative to the Boone County Board of Elections who later resigned.

Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams. Photo by Timothy D. Easley | Associated Press

In the meeting, Adams indicated he wouldn’t call the agenda item for Rogers’ removal. The Grant County Democratic Party also sought to remove a member at this meeting. 

Instead, the state board of elections passed on the agenda item until the June meeting. 

Summe spoke in the meeting and said she hoped the state board read the letters of support. 

“I find that trying to remove somebody without really good cause, without good reason is because, maybe, they feel like they agree with me too much is petty,” Summe said. “It’s punitive, and it’s destabilizing right before an election.”

On March 10, Summe and the Republican party representative to the county board of elections, Scott Kimmich, emailed the state board of elections in support of Rogers. 

“We were made aware that the Kenton County Democratic Executive Committee had recently asked Sarah to resign,” the letter reads. “When she refused, they voted to have her removed. They did not state any reason or cause for this removal.” 

On March 13, Summe, Kimmich, and Korzenborn wrote another letter to the state board. 

“Sarah Rogers is an active and integral part of the County Board,” the second letter reads. “She faithfully attends the County Board of Election meetings. She has a commonsense approach to elections and is an active participant in helping craft the election plans for the county. She is not afraid to ask questions to improve our process, and she will offer alternatives that make our election process better.”

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These letters are a point of contention for Democrats, who say that the board violated the Kentucky Open Meetings Act as sending the letters constitutes three members of the county board of elections discussing a piece of “public business” in private — something that reiterates their point about a lack of transparency and openness.

Any discussion involving at least three members of the board constitutes a quorum of the board, and that requires an open, public meeting under the law.

Earlier this week, the attorney general’s office issued an open meetings decision that found that the Kenton County board of elections violated one part of the open meetings act because they didn’t initially respond properly to the Kenton Democrats’ initial complaint.

However, the attorney general’s office said it didn’t have enough evidence to decide whether the county board violated the open meetings act with the letters it sent in defense of its Democratic representative because it’s unclear how the board came to the conclusion to send the letters.

“Moreover, it is not clear from this record how the Board members came to the decision to place their three names on this letter,” the attorney general’s decision reads. “If they discussed the matter on the telephone, through video teleconferencing equipment, or in person, then that too would be a violation.”

However, it further says that if the board members reached a decision through email, it isn’t clear how that would violate the word “meeting,” as the definition under Kentucky law doesn’t include written communications. 

“If the letter was intended to be from ‘the Board’ and carry the full weight and credibility that comes with acting within that capacity, then the Board violated the Act by taking action as an entity outside of a meeting that was open to the public,” the opinion reads. “However, if the letter was intended to be the three independent voices of citizens who also happen to be on the Board, then those citizens have a First Amendment right to voice their beliefs to another government agency. Moreover, if the letter was indeed intended to be from ‘the Board,’ the record on appeal is not clear as to how such a decision was rendered.” 

Summe clarified that she initially communicated with Kimmich via text before sending the letters via email to the state board of elections.

“I basically told them (Kimmich and Korzenborn) that I was going to send a letter to to the state board because I thought why they (the Democrats) were trying to get rid of her (Rogers) and never stated reason and that it was destabilizing to the election and I told my Representative Scott (Kimmich) that I was sending something just to inform him, to educate him as to what I was doing and he said I would like to support her too,” Summe said.

Further, she said Kimmich responded via text that he’d like to be on that email.

“And so we sent an email and that’s basically what I did and just said, ‘just informing you (Kimmich) and educating you as my board member,’ which I’m allowed to do under the statute, that I am sending something to support her,” Summe said. “And he said, ‘I’d like to, I’d like to join you in that support,’ And so we sent that letter. When I sent that to the state board of elections, I also included Chuck Korzenborn.”

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Kenton County clerk and chair of the county’s Board of Elections Gabrielle Summe speaks at a Kenton County mayors’ meeting. Photo by Nathan Granger | LINK nky

Kimmich confirmed that the initial communication between he and Summe was done via text — both he and Summe said there was not a group text.

“She sent me a text message and said that I’m going to send a letter supporting Sarah staying on the county board of elections because she’s been a good member,” Kimmich said. “And I said you can add my name to that list.”

When asked if she would support the removal now the primary election is over, Summe said “no” because the county Democrats didn’t give a reason for Rogers’ removal. 

The Kenton County Democrats can further litigate the matter over the Open Meetings Act in civil court, but Kenton County Democratic Party Vice Chair Dave Meyer said they wouldn’t pursue this specific issue. They might however to continue to pursue Rogers’ removal.

Why are the Kenton County Democrats seeking Rogers’ removal? 

The issues around Rogers’ potential removal started in 2022 when Danielle Bell became the chair and Meyer became the vice chair of the Kenton County Democratic Party. 

Meyer said that it was around that time they started to notice significant changes in how the county handled elections. 

“Almost invariably, there’s been no public discussion about those changes,” Meyer said. “There has been no public notice to Danielle Bell or myself about these changes. There has been no opportunity for us to participate and a conversation about how we as a county manage our elections.”

During the 2022 general election, issues in Kenton County led to long lines at voting locations.

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%. 

In January, the Covington City Commission called on the Kenton County Board of Elections to not further reduce the number of voting locations in Kenton County. The Kenton County Democrats have also been outspoken about not further reducing voting locations.

Kenton County Democrats point to the changes in the reduction of voting locations that they say suppress voters. 

Before each election, county election boards submit plans to the state board of elections. The state BOE approved the voting plans for Kenton County in March for the primary election. 

Kenton County’s plan contained 34 polling places, which was an increase from the 24 polling places the county had in the 2022 primary and general elections but a decrease from the 47 locations in the general election before that.

Regarding Rogers, Meyer said they haven’t been able to have a productive working relationship with her and want a new representative on the county board of elections. 

“From our perspective, she was fully aware that we were dissatisfied with a lot of the changes that the county board of elections has been making,” Meyer said.

Rogers said she had no idea she wasn’t doing what the county party wanted and found out in February when the party asked her to resign. But, they haven’t given her a specific reason, she said. 

“I haven’t had any discussion with them,” Rogers said. “They’ve never reached out to me to have a discussion about this.” 

Further, Rogers said they had discussions about the 2022 election, but until the resignation call, she had not heard of any performance issues.

“We had discussions about the way the 2022 election went, as I think everyone involved in politics did because of long lines and things like that, but they were not having discussions with me about my role on the board or my performance,” Rogers said. 

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After the resignation request, Rogers said the party hadn’t communicated with her. Meyer said she’s been copied on emails, but they haven’t communicated with her in a meaningful way. 

A partisan issue and the secretary of state’s race

When Adams brought the issue up at the April state board of elections meeting, he labeled the issue partisan and made a comparison to the issue with Republican Emily Shelton in Boone County in 2022. 

Adams told LINK nky that the situations are similar in that the “far right” Republicans tried to remove their board of elections member in Boone County in 2022, and now the “far left” Democrats are trying to remove their board member in Kenton County in 2023. 

“We have kind of a mirror image situation of people who are political activists that want to fire legitimate election administrators that they appointed themselves for not being partisan enough or ideological enough,” Adams said. 

Meyer said that’s not true, and it’s Adams meddling in a Democratic party issue when he’s a state official and a Republican. 

“The state board of elections is not supposed to meddle in these decisions,” Meyer said. “What we’re seeing and what we saw at the April 18 meeting was an unprecedented intrusion of a statewide elected official in Secretary Adams meddling in internal political affairs of political parties.”

Further, Meyer pointed to a similar situation in 2021 when the State Board of Elections removed a Democratic member from Breathitt County. Adams wasn’t the chair of the state Board of Elections at the time due to the legislature enacting an order keeping the position from acting as chair due to former Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes’ ethics issues.

Another piece of the puzzle in Kenton County is former state House Rep. Charles “Buddy” Wheatley — the Democratic challenger to Adams in this year’s secretary of state race. 

Rep. Buddy Wheatley (D-Covington) speaks at a rally held at New Riff Warehouse on Saturday morning Oct, 29, 2022. Photo by Abigail Shoyat | LINK nky

Wheatley lost his bid for reelection in the 65th House District, partly because redistricting in 2022 changed his district to be more suburban and thus more Republican-leaning, and away from the Democratic-leaning parts of the district in Covington. 

Further, Kenton County Democrats and Wheatley point to the changes in the reduction of voting locations that they say suppressed voters.

Republicans argued it came down to candidate quality — Republican Stephanie Dietz became the first woman to win the seat.

But, the issue might play out in this year’s race, and Adams said that Wheatley is leading the charge on Rogers’ removal in Kenton County, though Democrats say that’s not true.

“Buddy is leading the effort to fire this Democrat in his own county,” Adams said. 

Wheatley voted in favor of removing Rogers at the March meeting, but Meyer said that Wheatley isn’t involved in the conversation and has nothing to do with the removal. 

“Michael Adams blaming this on Buddy Wheatley is so far over any ethical line that I can’t believe it came out of his mouth,” Meyer said. 

Wheatley said he had nothing to do with Rogers’ potential removal and said Adams is attempting to deflect from not taking responsibility for the long lines in the 2022 election. 

“He’s now falsely claiming that I have been leading an effort to remove a member from the County Board of Elections to deflect from the fact that he’s not taking care of business as Chair of the Board of Elections,” Wheatley said. “Michael Adams has ignored similar requests from both the Boone County Republican Party and the Grant County Democratic Party.” 

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